Thanatos in Daily Life
Late Freud claimed that the activity of the human psyche is driven by an opposition between life and death instincts. Eros, the life instinct, aims at preserving the life of the individual creature and unifying living substances into ever more complex systems. The death instinct, Thanatos, aims at disintegration and returning the living being to a state of inorganic matter.
That is to say, in us there lies a will to self-destruction.
When I first read about it I thought, what a ridiculous "instinct" this Thanatos. Self-destruction as a core element of the person? Surely we would not have survived this long with such a thing. And the world already presents us with so many forces of destruction, why would we need the additional desire for it? The morning after these thoughts, I had a fight with my partner. I left the house upset and was cycling to school. At one point I found myself riding straight through a red light. I didn't look to see if there was a car coming. I had the time to stop but was willing, maybe even tempted, to die in that moment. It was both conscious and not conscious. A split-second decision based on calculations I couldn't access introspectively.
There it is, I thought. Thanatos.
Thanatos seeks to relieve us of the messiness and pain of life. For me, part of it is a moral decision. To destroy the ugly, the bad in myself which sometimes becomes so apparent. I'm so overtaken by emotion and suffering that I crave relief. And if there is no time, ability, or patience to change, destruction presents itself as the best option. It's the bullet that ends the headache.
That is not to say that Thanatos is second best. In the moment, it is not experienced as an acceptable though not ideal option. It is experienced as the solution. The anger, the intensity of emotion cries out for violence to meet it. I have just had a fight with my partner. I am reeling. I don't want to sit in a room and meditate. I don't want to have a relaxing bath. I want to smash my head against the wall and let the anger seep out. I want to cut myself open and release the hate from my body.
In its role as relief, the death instinct is a misguided solution to a problem. One seeks a quick escape from suffering rather than putting in the work to change the personality or wait out strong feelings. Or, one misidentifies the thing to be destroyed: rather than destroying the emotion, one destroys the body or the entire self.
The value judgment made by Thanatos can extend to life itself. Sometimes one becomes so disillusioned by life that one thinks inorganic matter preferable. This is the undercurrent I hear when someone tells me they don't want to have children because they think that it will cause more suffering in the world. Life itself is bad and should not be furthered.
I knew a man once who was well characterized by Thanatos in that he had an instinct for nonexistence. He resented being born. He resented that he was not given a choice about whether or not to exist, because he would have chosen against existence. He resented that the biological impulse to live was strong enough to make suicide impossible for him. He resented being a consciousness that did not want to exist trapped in a structure that pointed itself toward life.
He never, to my knowledge, engaged in self-destructive actions but Thanatos was the quiet undercurrent of his life. He lived fearfully. He didn't expand into his life. He stayed small and kept his needs minimal. He did not even have his own living space. Hilariously, he lived in the dungeon apartment of a dominatrix friend, literally surrounded by restraints.
His Thanatos was not an active destructive force but rather a passive stagnation at which he arrived due to an intellectualization of everything. He wanted an intellectual justification for all of his actions, which resulted in endless debating and ultimate inaction. Reasoning alone isn't enough to determine action. One needs feeling, impulse, some inner force. Eros ruled his life enough that he took care of bodily needs but he had no meaningful or individual connection with it. It didn't tell him what he lived for. So he treated the impulse to live as an external imposition and identified with the desire for nonexistence.
Why did he live this way? Sometimes Thanatos aims not to destroy but to keep. Keep you holding. This is Thanatos as holding pattern. There is the less dramatic example -- when you get swamped by the mundanity of life. When you lie in bed at night baffled at how you could muster the will or energy to brush your teeth, shower, do the dishes in the morning. With this body and this reality that you have to constantly work to maintain.
An immersion in Thanatos can provide freedom from the self-delusion of Eros. A reduced attachment to one's own life comes with a seeming objectivity -- an understanding that this is just one life amongst many, that one is just another person amongst many. This insight can cut two ways.
Sit in front of Thanatos and listen to it. It will tell you that we are nothing but atoms in the void. It will tell you that existence is a knife's edge in an abyss. The objects around us, and worse, we ourselves, are nothing but collections of properties. Between the properties there is nothing and horrifyingly, the properties themselves are empty.
Let me try to say this in a less baffling way. In a university cognitive science course, I read a description of the subconscious workings of the mind that has stayed with me vividly though the outlines have become admittedly vague and metaphorical and the technical terms have faded into oblivion. The idea is the following: Underneath the consciously experienced integrated whole of our thoughts there are subpersonal processes. These processes are individuals or atoms of a sort -- not drives but some sort of force -- that work in cascades. Each one is an electric bolt clamoring for attention, and each one has a particular goal. (I have trouble specifying their goals. They are small, a fragmentation of the personal-level goals we have.) They all fight for dominance like the titans that preceded the Athenian gods. Seeing only what they are and aware of nothing beyond themselves, their pushes pool together so that one vector inevitably dominates. And that is your conscious thought and action.
Thanatos whispers: not only does all decay eventually, but all is matter already. Already the life, the color, the joy is made of machines.
Here the freedom from the delusions of Eros can come with a loss of compassion. If everything is empty, what is anything worth? But it need not cut this way. The truths of Thanatos -- that the structure of our existence is empty, that there is nothing to hide behind, that there is nothing to protect -- can be horrifying or liberating.
Liberating how? Thanatos can be separated from its clothing of negative thoughts and emotions. It can simply be awareness of death as a universal law -- awareness that everything changes and everything dies. Thanatos can show us that, in a very concrete way, death is in everything.
What to do with your Thanatos in this case? Simultaneous to the nothingness that underlies everything is the unity of everything. If you don't fight the plunge of Thanatos into the abyss but follow it and follow it through you will find that the abyss is alive. What is the fight? Every friend and every memory. Every notion of yourself, every goal. Every desire, every love. What is the abyss? Their fleeting, spectral nature. That they are taken away in the wind. What is alive? Change. Somehow, the web of reality that takes everything away from you is moving. If you don't fight it, to be on the knife's edge in the abyss becomes to be willing to die in each moment and to be reborn with open eyes in each moment. And that is how Thanatos frees you.
Secretly, you couldn't destroy anything through Thanatos anyway.