Lear began the speech with an explanation that Freud’s death drive is an attempt to compensate for the absence of a good psychoanalytical theory of aggression.
“Freud hit a trauma himself,” Lear said. “The death-drive is a reaction to that trauma.”
According to Lear, Freud’s death-drive concept is based on three different phenomena coming together as one: the mind’s inclination to maintain psychological homeostasis, engage in compulsive repetition and deflect our inner entropic tendencies outward.
But Freud’s concept is not without fault, Lear said.
“There’s a seduction in a pretty technical sense,” said Lear. “Freud seduces us into thinking we have a theoretical reason for being.”
In reality, these phenomena do not come together to provide a solid base for the death-drive theory, he added.
“If we are to take it as a truth that everything living dies for internal reasons, becomes inorganic once again, then we shall be compelled to say that the aim of all life is death” said Lear. “[Freud believes] he can provide a proper explanation for the phenomenon for human aggression. There is no underlying theory for aggression.”
Lear began his argument by pointing out Freud’s abandonment of the “pleasure principle,” a theory on which Freud had based most of his prior work. The pleasure principle states that the mind is involved in a constant quest for pleasure. This theory culminated in Freud’s most important work, The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he posited that every dream contains a wish fulfillment. Freud abandoned this theory because it could not explain the fact that people with post traumatic stress disorder and other neuroses re-enact traumatic experiences in their dreams. Because these dreams are the antithesis of wish fulfillments, Freud found a major glitch in his most significant theory.
“[These dreams] have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back to the situation of his accident, a situation from which he wakes up in another fright,” wrote Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
According to Freud, the mind is made up of neurons connected at nodal points across which ideas are transmitted. Energy travels and diffuses along these nodes, which creates neural connections. When the energy is unable to diffuse, the result is compulsive repetition.
“It’s the essence of psychoanalysis” said Lear. “Life is stressful. We live under a type of pressure, and we often take it out on the body. Traumatic dreams represent a stalled attempt to get the mind up and running again.”
Lear pointed out some problems with Freud’s argument.
“It’s at this point that Freud makes some crucial missteps,” said Lear. “[He makes] a false association between compulsion and repetition. There is a type of repetition that emerges, but it is a surface manifestation of a failure of the mind’s ability to heal itself. The compulsion is not for anything.”
“The mind’s not aiming toward repetition,” added Lear. “The repetition ends up as a by-product of the compulsion. One doesn’t lead to the other.”
Lear demonstrated the falsity of the association by describing a population of frogs that tried repeatedly to reproduce but have been genetically mutated by pollution and damage to the ecosystem.
“The traumatic neuroses are the frogs coming back, trying to reproduce over and over again,” explained Lear. “But there isn’t a compulsion to repeat. Nothing in nature is trying to make them repeat. The mind might have an inherent tendency towards self-destruction.”
But Freud thought otherwise. “A drive is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things,” he wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
“Maybe [the mind’s] not heading in any direction at all,” said Lear. “Freud’s trying to see the mind as a whole. Instead of wondering why a person is unhealthy when he’s sick, Freud is asking why the person is healthy when he’s healthy. If our minds operate at a body temperature like 98.6 degrees, for example, we might say that death is room temperature. Then you can see life as an effort to stay above room temperature. At some point, you give up and die.”
Lear conceded that Freud was heading in the correct direction with his inquiries into the mind.
“What could be better or more convenient for Freud than to discover that when you’re aiming for life you’re actually aiming for death?” asked Lear.
The student reaction to Lear’s lecture was mixed.
“Certain things I didn’t understand,” said Michael Schlossman ’04. “I understood more his interpretation of Freud than his own interpretation. He kind of lost me.”
“I enjoyed Lear’s commentary on the physical manifestations of our emotions,” said Lucienne Canet ’04.