Sophie Halberstadt was 26 years old and pregnant with her third child when she fell ill with the Spanish influenza. The tell-tale symptoms appeared on January 20, 1920, and worsened steadily over the next five days, just as the rain and sleet beat steadily against the leaded window panes of the Halberstadt family home in Hamburg. First came a wracking fever, accompanied by headaches, dizziness, and a painfully sore throat, followed by the onset of heliotrope cyanosis, which rendered Sophie’s pale face a sickly shade of bluish-purple. Her pulse raced, then weakened and slowed. She struggled for air, and her throat rattled. Her mucosal membranes turned hyperemic, her sputum thick and tenacious, her mucopurulent discharge increasingly flecked with blood. The attending doctor, armed only with a Laennec’s stethoscope, a bottle of aspirin, and some salicylate of soda, could do little as his patient’s heaving lungs were progressively drowned by pulmonary edema. Subsequent damage to her bronchial tubes paved the way for secondary bacterial superinfection, allowing a fatal case of pneumonia to set in, and so it was that on January 25, 1920 Sophie Halberstadt, wife of the renowned photographer Max Halberstadt, and the fifth and best-loved child of Sigmund and Martha Freud, released her last belabored breath into the world, and then fell silent.
Her adoring father was devastated. In a January 27 letter to his associate Oskar Pfister, the Austrian neurologist lamented how “our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenzal pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed … the undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us.” Two days later, Freud wrote to another colleague, Sándor Ferenczi, conveying the melancholy news: “Wafted away! Nothing to say.” There was, it turned out, a great deal more to say, but Freud affected a certain sangfroid, telling Ferenczi that although his wife continued to be “very shaken,” he felt that “la séance continue” — “the show goes on” — though “it was a bit much for one week.” As Sophie’s relatives grieved, Freud threw himself back into his work, and putting the finishing touches on Jenseits des Lustprinzips, or Beyond the Pleasure Principle, an essay his early biographer Fritz Wittels described as having been written while Freud was “under the pressure of the death of his blossoming daughter,” a sort of cry “at the graveside of his daughter.”
Freud had previously attributed human behavior largely to the actions of the libido, but things took a distinctly darker turn in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and thenceforth his psychological drive doctrine would include the so-called Todestrieb, or “death drive,” which purportedly leads individuals to engage in destructive, aggressive, or compulsive behaviors wholly at odds with the self-preservative, harmonious, or creative forces conferred on them by the Lustprinzip. With the life instinct no longer the primary impelling force behind the id, human life became a danse macabre between Eros and Thanatos, in tune with the “oscillating rhythm in the life of organisms,” and driven by both (pro)creative urges and the “universal tendency of all living matter — to return to the peace of the inorganic world.” There is an argument to be made that Freud borrowed this concept from his student Wilhelm Stekel, who a decade earlier had examined how morbid obsessions could suppress sexual instincts, but ultimately it was Freud who popularized the idea of an inborn psychological death instinct.
The author of Beyond the Pleasure Principle would later grant that while he, in his own psychoanalytical capacity, “would certainly have insisted on the connection to be made between the death of a daughter and the concepts of the Beyond … on every analytical study involving someone else,” the majority of the work had already been written by the time Sophie fell victim to influenzal pneumonia. “The only part that was missing,” Freud insisted, was a (rather abstruse) passage on “the mortality and immortality of protozoa.” It is easy to see why the founder of psychoanalysis did not want such a fundamental theoretical revision attributed solely to his personal sense of loss. Sophie’s death was a tragedy, but it was one that Freud shared with tens of millions of parents who had lost their sons and daughters to bullets, shells, torpedoes, mustard gas, ethnic cleansing, starvation, typhus, and influenza in the grim preceding years. If psychoanalysis was as scientifically rigorous a field as he and his acolytes professed, no individual misfortune should play such a profound role in its wholesale reappraisal. Still, as Peter Gay noted, “the term ‘death drive’ — Todestrieb — entered his correspondence a week after Sophie Halberstadt’s death,” and therefore Freud’s “loss can claim a subsidiary role … [in] his analytic preoccupation with destructiveness.”
To be fair, it did not take his daughter’s untimely demise for Freud to take an active interest in the transience of human life. No sentient person, bearing witness to the catastrophic events surrounding the First World War, could possibly have avoided it. Between 1914 and 1918, in far-flung places like Przemyśl, Kolubara, the Marne, the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, and Gallipoli, the Allies and Central Powers had erected vast hecatombs into which they relentlessly fed burnt offerings in the form of millions of their bravest fellow citizens — a human sacrifice of unprecedented dimensions. In his 1915 meditation on the conflict, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, Freud lapsed into a state bordering on despair:
We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest. Science herself has lost her impartiality; her deeply embittered servants seek for weapons from her with which to contribute towards the struggle with the enemy. Anthropologists feel driven to declare him inferior and degenerate, psychiatrists issue a diagnosis of his disease of mind or spirit.
Freud would conclude that “men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness,” as evidenced by that terrible conflict in which “all individual moral acquisitions were obliterated, and only the most primitive, the oldest, the crudest mental attitudes were left.”
For all that, the notion of an inherent death drive never really caught on amongst Freud’s disciples, making it, as the Welsh psychoanalyst Ernest Jones later commented, “noteworthy in being the only one of Freud’s which has received little acceptance on the part of his followers.” Freud himself acknowledged this reluctance: “the assumption of the existence of an instinct of death or destruction has met with resistance even in analytic circles. … To begin with it was only tentatively that I put forward the views I have developed here, but in the course of time they have gained such a hold on me that I can no longer think in any other way.” The reader may very well be exhibiting some resistance of his own towards the idea of an innate Todestrieb. After all, hasn’t psychoanalysis been largely consigned to the dustbin of psychiatric history? Paul Johnson, in Modern Times (1985), persuasively argued that Freud’s
methods of therapy have proved on the whole, costly failures, more suited to cosset the unhappy than cure the sick. We now know that many of the central ideas of psychoanalysis have no basis in biology. They were, indeed, formulated by Freud before the discovery of Mendel’s Laws, the chromosomal theory of inheritance, the recognition of inborn metabolic errors, the existence of hormones and the mechanism of the nervous impulse, which collectively invalidate them. As Sir Peter Medawar has put it, psychoanalysis is akin to Mesmerism and phrenology: it contains isolated nuggets of truth, but the general theory is false.
There is no denying that as a neurologist Sigmund Freud was a failure, if not an outright fraud. At the very least he was, in Henry de Montherlant’s characteristically well-aimed assessment, an “obsessive who, as is the case in such vulgar cases, wished to communicate his own obsessions to everyone else [Freud était un obsédé, qui voulait, comme il est de règle de la règle la plus vulgaire, communiquer son obsession à tous].” His early experiments involving the therapeutic uses of cocaine rank, in the words of his critic Frederick Crews, “among the most careless research studies ever to see print,” though they did serve to justify his own addiction to the substance. His use of immobility and fattening regimens, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, hysterectomies, and the excision of the clitoris were positively barbaric. At the beginning of his career, he regretted how he had “yet to help any patient,” and later on came to realize that “I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador — an adventurer, if you want it translated — with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.” Shockingly, Sándor Ferenczi reported that his famous colleague once declared that “patients only serve to provide us with a livelihood and material to learn from. We certainly cannot help them.”
Yet Freud the social scientist is a different figure altogether. Many of his theories, though outlandish when applied to individuals, become (using Claude Lévi-Strauss’ felicitous phrase) “good to think with” when considering society writ large. John Murray Cuddihy, in his provocative The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (1974), cleverly demonstrated how Freud’s conception of a primordial, “primitive” identity lurking beneath another “superimposed” identity happened to track perfectly the experience of Eastern European Jews as they assimilated into bourgeois Western European society, “allowing the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of Jewish identity to continue relatively undisturbed ‘beneath’ the modernization process.” Tensions between the two coincident modes of living and thinking meant that “social unease became mental dis-ease.” Freud thereby provided a potent lens through which we can view any number of psychogenic or sociogenic mental disorders or phenomena.
Similarly, in light of the infamous Satanic panic, the McMartin preschool trial, and the epidemic of scandalously false recollections encouraged by “recovered memory therapy,” most of us have become justifiably dubious of the theory of “screen memories,” but the picture looks very different at the societal or civilizational level. Freud postulated the existence of Nachträglichkeit — also known as après-coup, deferred action, or “afterwardsness” — a neologism used to describe “belated understanding or retroactive attribution of sexual or traumatic meaning to earlier events,” but when we broaden that idea to include the way “memory is reprinted, so to speak, in accordance with later experience,” we can comprehend how nations (“imagined communities”) continuously rewrite or even vandalize their own histories. As Cuddihy noted in The Ordeal of Civility, “political revolution achieves its deepest and most secret ambition in the rewriting of history itself,” an outgrowth of Freud’s assertion that, for better or worse, there are those for whom “everything begins in shame experiences.” The self-destructive spasms of iconoclastic violence and the invidious spread of critical race theory in recent years can be seen as a collective outbreak of afterwardsness, a more virulent variant of that wide-ranging affliction known as presentism. We may not take repression and the father complex seriously anymore, and again with good reason, but cultural Vatermord, or parricide, is alive and well, judging from “Classical Patricide,” Victor Davis Hanson’s recent New Criterion piece on the ongoing war against the formal study of the classics. We are now seeing what happens when, as Freud wrote in Totem and Taboo, “the restrictions of deferred obedience [are] no longer held,” and how the need to “repeat the crime of parricide again and again” arises “as a result of the changing conditions of life.”
The self-destructive spasms of iconoclastic violence and the invidious spread of critical race theory in recent years can be seen as a collective outbreak of afterwardsness.
The “death drive” constitutes another Freudian theory that is “good to think with,” at least according to the Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who has become one of our era’s leading critics of neoliberalism. Born in 1959 and originally a metallurgist by training, Han moved to Germany in the 1980s in order to study philosophy, producing a dissertation on Martin Heidegger while at Freiburg, and then going on to author a series of slender, aphoristic masterpieces, which only in recent years have begun appearing in English thanks to the Polity Press. These include The Burnout Society, The Scent of Time, Saving Beauty, and The Disappearance of Rituals, each of which explores different facets of modernity, typically emphasizing the hyperkinesia, spiritual and aesthetic deterioration, and social atomization of contemporary life, while preaching the need for a renewed vita contemplativa, the better to frustrate the hollowness and “deadly hyper-activity” of our times.
In The Disappearance of Rituals, Han elucidates how the transition from analog to digital life has meant that “symbolic perception is gradually being replaced by a serial perception that is incapable of producing the experience of duration.” “Binge viewing,” for instance, becomes “comatose viewing,” and thus
the neoliberal regime pushes serial perception, reinforces the serial habitus. It intentionally abolishes duration in order to drive more consumption. The permanent process of updating, which has now extended to all areas of life, does not permit the development of any duration or allow for any completion. The ever-present compulsion of production leads to a de-housing [Enthausung], making life more contingent, transient and unstable. But dwelling requires duration.
Time has decayed into a “mere sequence of point-like moments,” Han writes in The Scent of Time, while society, deprived of heritage and memory, amounts to little more than a hodgepodge of “information or commodities.” As life becomes more rushed, and the public more atomized, we lack an “ordering force,” the implications of which are profound. “Formative or decisive caesuras are absent from life. The time of life is no longer structured by sections, completions, thresholds, and transitions. Instead, there is a rush from one present to the next and an aging without growing old. Finally, one perishes in non-time. This is what makes dying today more difficult than ever.”
In his most recent book, Capitalism and the Death Drive (2021), Han pursues this line of reasoning further, using Freud’s theory of the Todestrieb to analyze the increasingly lethal instincts of late liberalism. It should be noted that when Han discusses “capitalism,” he is not referring to the various forms of free-market economics found in Max Weber’s traditional typology — primitive booty capitalism, pariah capitalism, legal-rational capitalism, and so on — but rather the cynically self-serving racket of present-day neoliberalism, notable for its income polarization, its almost pathological need to stimulate consumer demand, and above all the “ever-increasing rent-seeking practices of oligopolistic capital,” as José Gabriel Palma put it in a prescient 2009 essay, adding that
Capitalism can be reconstructed as a system with asymmetric “compulsions” — minimum for oligopolistic capital, maximum for workers and small and medium firms … Only in capitalism are there continuous pressures from competitive struggles, which lead to the need to constantly improve the forces of production. Therefore, as Alice in Alice in Wonderland, only in capitalism is it necessary to run just to stay in the same place. However, what has emerged in practice from the neo-liberal experiment is a system in which some have been left with all the running, while others have preferred to catch a lift.
Under neoliberalism, Palma posited, oligarchs are able to “regain the upper hand via an economic environment that was permanently unstable and highly insecure for the majority of the population and the state. That is, one that could have the necessary debilitating effect both on workers and the state. In this kind of environment a highly mobile and malleable factor of production (especially finance capital) would have an unrivaled power to thrive.”
This intentional weakening of civil society is only possible with the help of the politico-media complex, which can almost instantly manufacture what Palma calls a “spontaneous consensus-type of hegemony,” using the “necessary facade of ‘modernity’ for this spontaneous consensus.” Yet this supposedly voluntary consensus, like your smartphone’s software, remains subject to Han’s “permanent process of updating.” Consider how, to take but one prominent example, we have in a matter of months gone from “Stop wearing face masks. #coronavirus” (Rep. Eric Swalwell) and “not having a mask does not necessarily put you at any increased risk of contracting this disease” (Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program Michael Ryan) to “a face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine” (former CDC Director Robert Redfield) to “vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick, and that’s not just in the clinical trials, but it’s also in real world data” (current CDC Director Rochelle Walensky) to the return of universal masking combined with vaccination green passes or quasi-mandates, with each laughably contradictory permutation defended to the hilt by the very same people. Such is the “serial habitus” of our postmodern existence, with everything from deeply held moral considerations to unambiguous scientific statements inevitably proving “contingent, transient, and unstable.” Truth, Han wearily concludes, has become a “temporal phenomenon,” made “void” by the “tearing away of time” and the “shrinking and fleeting” nature of the present.
Above all, “it is a ‘too much,’ not a ‘too little,’ that is making us sick,” Han maintains, echoing Leopold Kohr’s unassailable maxim that “wherever something is wrong, something is too big.” Just how sick these compulsions are making us is the subject of the succinct, limpid essays and transcribed interviews that comprise Capitalism and the Death Drive. Capitalism has traditionally been understood as resting, as Han notes early in his treatise, on the “negation of death,” given that “capital is accumulated as a defense against death, against absolute loss”; indeed “death is what accounts for the compulsion of production and growth.” In De La Démocratie en Amérique, Alexis de Tocqueville famously attributed Americans’ “taste for material enjoyments,” “restiveness,” and “inconstancy” to their “unceasing trepidation” in the face of of death — “He who has confined his heart solely to the search for the goods of this world is always in a hurry … In addition to the goods that he possesses, at each instant he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten.” Such a worldview has the benefit of stimulating a Brobdingnagian appetite for consumption and attendant growth-friendly policies, but “what we nowadays call ‘growth,’” Han protests, “is in reality random, cancerous proliferation,” a “frenzy of production and growth that seems like a frenzy of death. It is a simulation of vitality that conceals a deadly impeding catastrophe.” Citing Walter Benjamin, Han suggests that “humankind’s self-alienation may have reached a tipping point ‘where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.’” We are starting to short-circuit, in other words, and we don’t even seem to mind all that much. “A queer instinct indeed,” Sigmund Freud wondered aloud in his 1933 New Introductory Lecture on Psycho-Analysis, “directed to the destruction of its own organic home!”
Han blames all of this on a “paradoxical death drive.” The “separation of life and death that is constitutive of the capitalist economy creates an undead life, death in life,” wherein life is deprived of life. The “striving for life without death creates the necropolis — an antiseptic space of death, cleansed of human sounds and smells. Life processes are transformed into mechanical processes. The total adaptation of human life to mere functionality is already a culture of death … In the hope of survival, we accumulate dead value, capital. The living world is being destroyed by dead capital. This is the death drive of capital. Capitalism is ruled by a necrophilia that turns living beings into lifeless things.” A bleak picture, but one that explains how cityscapes became dominated by aggressively ugly, sterile, but supposedly functional brutalism and sprawl, how our public spaces are governed by the cursed energy of social distancing floor decals and counterproductive plastic barriers, and most fitting of all, how children — their bright young faces obscured by soiled linen — are subjected to a “zombie check” and forced by teachers and administrators to “zombie walk” so as to maintain a physical distance from classmates, in a perverse enactment of the modern-day necrophilia Han so insightfully describes.
This hollowness is now a characteristic of even the most fundamental aspects of our lives, often hiding in plain sight. Our undoubtedly efficient factory farms are able to feed our ever-growing populace, but soil depletion and genetic engineering have led to what Donald Davis and his University of Texas biochemistry research team found to be “reliable declines” in “the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C” found in fruits and vegetables over the past half century. Some two billion people now suffer from “hidden hunger,” as calorie intake is wholly decoupled from nutritional intake, and deficiencies in iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and selenium take a toll on global public health. Hidden toxins like xenoestrogens, microplastics, and glyphosate abound, while e-waste proliferates, and rare earth mining concerns bring about water shortages and acidified landscapes. Near the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, one can find “a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10-square-kilometer tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world.” Nearby townsfolk in Xinguang Sancun, meanwhile, have reported an epidemic of osteoporosis, diabetes, and respiratory issues, and the population has largely fled. Xinguang Sancun is now literally a necropolis, while we, having materially benefited from its demise, inhabit a spiritual necropolis, one insulated (for now) from what the German psychologist Ludwig Klages castigated as the “foul orgy of destruction with which ‘civilized’ or ‘moral’ man defiles the face of the planet — the last offspring of the horrid drama which we are pleased to call the spiritual development or even progress of mankind.”
“Death, understood as the biological end of life, is not the only, or only true, form of death,” Han reminds us. “Death can also be understood as a continuous process in which one gradually loses oneself, one’s identity, over the course of a lifetime. In this way, death may begin before death.” The concept of “social death” usually arises in the context of physical and cultural genocide, but Han suggests that it is a symptom of modernity itself. Claudia Card, in her 2003 article “Genocide and Social Death,” wrote of how “social vitality exists through relationships, contemporary and intergenerational, that create an identity that gives meaning to a life.” Atomization saps this vitality, as does the disappearance of rituals, hyperkinesia, and the stifling bio-medical surveillance state. As the Italian philosopher Giorgrio Agamben pointedly asked at the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, “What is a society that has no other value than survival?” The phenomenon Han calls the “ugly cancerous growth of undead life” should be opposed at all costs, lest we become “too alive to die, and too dead to live.”
The next consideration, of course, is: What Is To Be Done? Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s answer to that question, which provided the title of his most famous work, led us down a revolutionary road paved with utilitarianism, utopianism, materialism, rationalism, and egoism, eventually bringing us to this unfortunate impasse. The Bulgarian-French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt (2001), preached a different kind of resistance:
The question I would like to examine — from the somewhat narrow though not socially irrelevant perspectives of private life, psychological life, art, and literature — is the necessity of a culture of revolt in a society that is alive and developing, not stagnating. In fact, if such a culture did not exist, life would become a life of death, that is, a life of physical and moral violence, barbarity. This is a matter of survival of our civilizations and their freest and most enlightened components. There is an urgent need to develop the culture of revolt starting with our aesthetic heritage and to find new variants of it. Heidegger thought that only religion could save us; faced with the religious and political impasses of our time, an experience of revolt may be the only thing that can save us from the automation of humanity that is threatening us. This revolt is under way, but it has not yet found its voice, any more than it has found the harmony likely to give it the dignity of beauty. And it might not.
Is Byung-Chul Han the one to lead, ideologically at least, an Evola-esque rivolta contro il mondo moderno? Han himself is not particularly sanguine when it comes to the prospects of such an uprising. One of the chapters in Capitalism and the Death Drive, “Why Revolution Is Impossible Today,” examines how opposition to the system-preserving power of the neoliberal state is hamstrung by the fact that “the subordinated subject is not even aware of its insubordination,” and in fact “believes itself to be free…. Restricting freedom quickly provokes resistance. Exploiting freedom does not.” As we have seen, this only works if the regime is able to implement a “spontaneous consensus-type of hegemony,” which in turn requires citizens to have what Ryszard Legutko calls an easily manipulated “thin view of the self,” as opposed to the “thick selves” that have a protective carapace conferred by nationalism, moral absolutism, or religious belief. In a similar vein, Bertrand de Jouvenel’s On Power: The Natural History of its Growth (1945) systematically demonstrates how even liberal democracies will instinctively “attack centrifugal tendencies,” eventually leading to “the darkness of a formless mass, destined to despotism or anarchy.”
The victory of modernity over tradition appears to be more or less complete. Contemporary conservatism, as Michael Malice is fond of saying, typically manifests itself as “progressivism driving the speed limit.” Integralism, once an ideology that viewed the state as an organic whole dependent on its unique admixture of inherited hierarchies, history, and geography, has become a vehicle for quixotic theocratic ambitions, as modern-day religious integralists fantasize about subordinating temporal power to ecclesiastical authority, while actual clerical officialdom in the West liberalizes its own institutions and eagerly subordinates itself to state interests, viz. the crucial role of religious nonprofits and dioceses in lucrative immigrant “newcomer settlement services.” The “Benedict Option,” like Byung-Chul Han’s vita contemplativa, offers a way to slip out from underneath, but not a way to actively oppose, neoliberalism’s “commercialization of all aspects of life” and “total exploitation of the human being.”
The pandemic, with its encouragement of a “survival society that is ultimately based on a fear of death,” has only accelerated recent trends. The “hysteria of survival,” Han remarks, “makes society so inhumane,” but the “digital biopolitical surveillance” methods developed in China lend themselves to the kind of “autocratic surveillance state” supposedly required to combat the spread of an aerosolized coronavirus. Hence the rise of green passports (revocable if one falls behind on one’s messenger RNA booster injections), quarantine-enforcing apps that utilize facial recognition and geolocation, the construction of prefabricated quarantine lazarettos, and other public measures undertaken in the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, and any number of other jurisdictions besides, any one of which threatens to establish a veritable bio-medical panopticon. “Seen in this way,” Han argues, “the virus marks the change of an era.” We were already inhabiting a world of “digital feudalism” and “surveillance capitalism,” and now the pandemic has broken down “the barrier which has hitherto prevented the biopolitical expansion of surveillance into the sphere of the individual,” a development prefigured in C. S. Lewis’ dystopian trans-humanist fairytale That Hideous Strength (1945). But this is something of a mask-off moment, and it will be very difficult for the neoliberal regime to market itself “as a form of freedom” going forward, thereby providing something of an opening for its critics, even if in the short term it presages nothing good for basic human liberties.
Thankfully there is nothing invincible about a society predicated on atomization and just-in-time McKinsey-ism. “These forces,” Evola opined, “devoid of connection with any higher principle, are in fact, on a short chain.” One suspects that a well-timed truckers’ strike might bring it to its knees in a matter of days. Taking a broader view, Henry de Montherlant cautioned against untoward histrionics:
Everything is dying and being born in every moment: bodies, nature, perhaps even ideas. This epoch is like all other epochs: the things dominating it is are but simple variations of mood in the history of mankind. One could speak of the agony caused by our civilization, but I would not cry over this agony … Life will find other ways, being protean. Spare civilizations are not lacking. Those who linger over the ruins of wars or revolutions are those who do not feel within themselves the power to do something new. Let us deplore it all, but briefly. And then, let’s start all over again.
We have seen how Freud postulated an “oscillating rhythm” in the life of organisms, just as the medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun postulated a waxing and waning of asabiyya (solidarity) in order to explain the rise and inevitable fall of empires. “Dynasties have a natural life span like individuals,” wrote Ibn Khaldun in his magisterial Muqaddimah, and they appear to have death drives as well. Late liberalism’s Todestrieb necessarily implies a terminal point that will be arrived at sooner or later, given the ruinous feedback loop of many of its policies, but it also implies a point of departure, a moment of rebirth. Thanatos is nothing without Eros, and vice versa.
Arthur Schnitzler, Freud’s contemporary, had an ambiguous relationship with psychoanalysis, but nonetheless accepted the premise of a death drive, and even elaborated upon it in his 1927 Buch Der Sprüche und Bedenken: “There are all kinds of flight from responsibility. There is a flight into death, a flight into sickness, and finally a flight into stupidity. The last is the least dangerous and most comfortable, since even for clever people the journey is not as long as they might fondly imagine.” Despite our pervasive fear of death, we are, as Byung-Chul Han observes, “currently living through a frenzy of production and growth that seems like a frenzy of death.” We have undertaken a flight into the real and imagined diseases of modernity. And of the flight into stupidity, perhaps the less said, the better. For the individual, the latter only seems less dangerous, of course; for society as a whole, it surely must count as the most perilous trajectory. All three are, in the end, flights towards oblivion, and it was the peerless aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila who rightly warned that “everything rolls towards death, but only what is worthless rolls towards oblivion [todo rueda hacia la muerte, pero sólo lo carente de valor hacia la nada].”
It is terrible to contemplate how much of the world around us is defined by a mindless death drive, by an impetuous cascade towards nothingness. Yet the hegemonic neoliberal discourse has at least provided us with a helpful concept in this regard. I believe it is known as schöpferische Zerstörung — the gale of creative destruction, out of which we might follow the lead of Byung-Chul Han and begin to build a world of ethics, morals, truth, fidelity, and beauty, a world that is alive and developing, not automated and stagnating, a world unbeholden to the “immanence of consumption,” and better equipped to resist the “undisguised brutality of our time” that presently weighs so heavily upon us.