Beyond the Pleasure Principle: an Analysis
‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ is one of Sigmund Freud’s most widely recognised essays, in which the neurologist considers the ways in which the human mind recreates scenarios in order to gain pleasure and master pain. A difficult and often misinterpreted essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle marked a major turning point in Freud’s theoretical approach.
Freud describes what he calls the ‘pleasure principle’ as a fundamental human instinct to protect oneself against negativity. The essay includes examples of patients’ suffering from neurosis; these subjects compulsively repeat negative experiences and project difficult relationships on to their therapist, (transference).
Initially, Freud argues that children recreate certain incidents and experiences within their games, engaging in repetitive activity in order to become ‘master of the situation.’ As an example, Freud describes a young boy participating in a game which involves the repeated rejection of his toys – he throws his toys, each time exclaiming ‘go away’ before retrieving them – exclaiming ‘there.’
“This was therefore the complete game, disappearance and return, the first act being the only one generally observed by the onlookers, and the one untiringly repeated by the child as a game for its own sake, although the greater pleasure unquestionably attached to the second act,” – Freud.
Simply put, the child vanquishes and regains his toy, mimicking the disappearance and reappearance of his mother, in order to maintain control – ‘The departure of the mother cannot possibly have been pleasant for the child […] How then does it accord with the pleasure-principle that he repeats this painful experience as a game? […] the departure must be played as the necessary prelude to the joyful return, and that in this latter lay the true purpose of the game.’
The same child later throws another toy which Freud interprets as a smug gesture:
“He had been told that his absent father was at the war, and he did not miss him at all, giving the clearest indications that he did not wish to be disturbed in the sole possession of his mother,” – Freud
He does not, however, explore the possibility that the act is once again one of mastery. Rather than possessing an Oedipal complex, the child may wish to confront his father, mimicking his leaving via his play in order to readdress the balance of perceived parental failure.
Freud states that not all forms of repetition provide pleasure. Individuals may also recreate upsetting experiences because the unconscious desires exposure, a concept called ‘The Return of the Repressed.’ The unconscious does not resist detection, but is instead unwillingly repressed by the ego.
Neurotic patients experience a ‘permanent sense of inferiority’ in adulthood due to the ‘efflorescence of infantile sexual life’ inevitably falling flat. Children desire adult lives, sexual encounters and intimacy with the parents of the opposite sex – wishes which can only lead to disappointment. Unfulfilled, children learn to feel a sense of worthlessness from a young age, which leads to under-achievement later in life.
Neurotic patients feel the need to repeat experiences of unrequited childhood desire, driven by a compulsion which provides no resolution. They attempt to recreate childhood failings in new and contemporary ways, such as interrupting a course of treatment before it is complete, or contriving to have the physician speak severely to them.
Difficulties here lay in the archetype of neurotics – Freud does not explain whether the compulsion to repeat is present only in neurotic patients or whether the compulsion is responsible for the neuroses itself. Nor does he define the criteria for diagnosis of a neurotic.
‘Active behaviours’ are behaviours by which the patient subconsciously sabotages his own relationships in an attempt to repeat strained relationships with the parents of the opposite sex, and other failures. The patient derives no pleasure from such behaviour. ‘Passive behaviours’ are experiences in which the subject seems to have no influence:
“Far more striking are those cases where the person seems to be experiencing something passively, without exerting any influence of his own, and yet always meets with the same fate over and over again,” – Freud
The notion of a ‘passive experience’ seems almost supernatural and contrasts sharply with many of Freud’s theories. He presents an example of a woman who married three men consecutively, all of whom fell ill soon after marriage, although there is no detailed exploration of whether the woman may have had any prior-knowledge in regards to the men’s health. For example, she may have known they were ill, or subconsciously chosen men from similar backgrounds with a predisposition to certain illness/lifespan.
Freud’s essays can be read in Penguin’s Beyond the pleasure Principle: and Other Writings.