In 1920, Freud presented a new psychoanalytic understanding of humans in his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle. His approach became more pessimistic. According to his previous view, the pleasure principle was a comprehensive account of the workings of the human psyche. Freud saw a person as striving inherently for pleasure and avoiding suffering. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud came to the disappointing conclusion that human beings are not, first of all, intent on avoiding suffering, but rather, on the contrary, that they are self-destructive beings whose psyche is guided by the drive to death. Veterans of the First World War were among those who convinced Freud of this key role of the death drive.
It turns out that trauma is not only a malfunction in the work of the psyche but also the constitutive principle of its work. The human psyche repeats trauma, and this obsessive repetition is the basic constant of its work. Freud called this part of a person a demonic component: it’s terrifying, and at the same time, inalienable property. Freud was not the first to formulate the idea of destructiveness as a necessary component of the work of the psyche. Sabina Spielrein, a psychoanalyst of Russian-Jewish origin, stated this several years before the publication of Freud’s work. Freud knew about her theory, and he was certainly influenced by it, but he only mentioned it in passing within his essays.
Freud offers several interpretations of the death drive: he sees it as the desire of all living things to return to their original inorganic state and also as an obsessive drive toward self-injury by the psyche. Psychoanalytic thinkers have later developed various interpretations of it. For example, Žižek interprets the death drive as ‘Zombie-like’ and undead. According to his interpretation, the desire for death is on the other side of the cycle of life and death. It is something that, being dead, and because of its deadness, is more alive and enduring than actually living. The desire for death signifies the eternal might of this deadness. The undead not know mortality; they mindlessly rush ahead of themselves. In the words of Žižek: “The ‘death drive’ is paradoxically the Freudian name for its very opposite, for the way immortality appears within psychoanalysis: for an uncanny excess of life, for an ‘undead’ urge which persists beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death, of generation and corruption.” [i]
Todd McGowan urges political philosophers to finally stop turning a blind eye to the fact that the human being is driven by the death drive. Moreover, he not only defines the human as driven primarily by the desire for death but also speaks of the death drive as the basic constitutive structure of society. He uses Lacanian understanding of the desire for death as when he writes: “Death drive is an impetus to return to an originary traumatic and constitutive loss.” [ii] The Lacanian subject is, itself, primordial and irretrievable loss, and its sociality is constituted as a sharing of this loss with others. The death drive simultaneously constitutes sociality and threatens it. Sociality requires self-sacrifice, which is one of the forms of actualization of the death drive. The basis of moral, that is, pro-social human behavior, involves sacrificing oneself, reducing one’s interests to nothing, thereby actualizing one’s inner emptiness. Caring for another implies the neglect of one’s own interests; that is, it implies the partial humiliation of oneself, and the exaltation of the other. It is the recognition of one’s own insignificance and of the fragility and mortality of the other that makes us human. Caring for the other involves this aspect of partially killing ourselves and, through this, uniting with others. Instantiating our own insignificance and the vulnerability of others are the foundations of sociality, and they can be understood as being death-driven processes.
In her work, Catherine Malabou seeks to go further than Freud in his conceptualization of the death drive. According to her, Freud failed to consider the death drive as not only destructive but also, simultaneously, as formative. For Freud, the death drive meant a cessation or failure in the process of forming or shaping. Malabou offers a concept of ‘destructive plasticity’ to replace the Freudian concept of the death drive. She uses this to demonstrate that the destructive element of the human psyche is also formative. Destructive plasticity not only destroys, but also forms identities; it gives rise to the walking dead, living forms of death, instead of forms of life. The walking dead die within life and continue to exist in the form of death. Such identities are traumatized either organically (for example, as a result of brain injuries) or psychologically (for example, as a result of participation in hostilities).
The perspective of treatment can’t be used for the analysis of the work of destructive plasticity. The walking dead are truly tragic figures who cannot be saved, which is why they are overlooked by the psychological perspective with its positively oriented thinking. Malabou argues that the concept of destructive plasticity is applicable (to varying degrees) to every human today. Everyone is traumatized. We are all not quite alive. We are like the walking dead, a surviving piece of death, rather than a surviving piece of life. Considering that the death drive is a constitutive feature of the human psyche and of all human sociality, it therefore seems to be a necessary and honest theoretical construction for the analysis of recent Ukrainian-Russian relations.
It seems to me that Žižek’s definition of the desire for death is suitable for analyzing Russia in its relation to Ukraine. Russia demonstrates precisely this desire for death, acting as an undead, irrational, and stupid destructive force. It devastates itself, acting against its own interests. Russia is a monster that has gone crazy, destroying everything in its path. She acts in desperation as if she has nothing to lose, as if there is nothing human left: only madness remains. It seems that instead of aiming at preserving the remnants of humanity, on the contrary, she deliberately shows the maximum amount of inhumanity. For example, by purposefully and cynically destroying the Drama Theater in Mariupol, where hundreds were taking refuge, or shooting a woman with her newborn child. Russia covers its actions, as it has done before, with the narrative of care and justice. But this narrative is being more and more denounced as terrifying, weak excuses formed within the delirium of its madness. It speaks like a mad person who mutters something that seems to resemble, though only remotely, familiar language.
In this madness, there lies exposed the bareness of inner emptiness and inner meaninglessness. Russia is like a mad person whose actions cannot be predicted because she does not act (and does not even pretend to act) in defense of her own interests. She acts desperately and chaotically. We are witnessing a huge bloodthirsty creature who is dead on the inside, unaware of its own mortality.
However, there is also another (not)Russia. This is not the one that attacked Ukraine, but the one that opposes this attack. There is a ‘Russia’ to whom the state policy is alien, horrific, incomprehensible, unacceptable, as it is for the rest of the world. Perhaps, it is even more alien and horrifying for this ‘Russia’ because their country claims to be acting on their behalf. Judging by my experience of being in Russia, it seemed to me that they were in the majority, especially among the younger generation. They are like refugees, repressed in their own country. Their longing for death takes on a different form—self-criticism, guilt, fear, hurtfulness, remorse, the trauma of the discrepancy between their own position and actions and the actions of their country. They are an empty place in their country. They are not heard, and the government of Russia considers them traitors (preferring that they would not exist). Their mode of self-destruction is activity aimed at supporting and sympathizing with Ukraine, thus sacrificing their security by supporting what their country forbids them to support.
Ukraine is for me the most obvious example of what McGowan describes as an altruistic death driveв. Ukrainians are characterized by indestructible and desperate resilience, inspired by love for their homeland. Love for Ukraine is not ordinary nationalism in the form of pride in one’s nation. This love has always been painful, like love for something not strong and powerful, but rather tragic. Yet, they often completely refuse to take the position of a victim. This is sincere love, which is not for something, but in spite of everything. Even before the war, Ukrainians sometimes associated Ukraine with something permanently at death’s door. The initial version of the Ukrainian anthem begins with the words “Ukraine has not yet died.” I remember how we joked in childhood that Ukraine was permanently in a state of dying; I wasn’t able to comprehend at that time all the pain of these words. The most common internal image of Ukraine for Ukrainians is as suffering, desolate, but at the same time persistent and beloved. Lesya Ukrainka refers to Ukraine as a “fateless” mother: she is “sad, weary” but at the same time she is “the only one, dear” to Ukrainians.
Our love for Ukraine and our thoughts about it are self-destructive; they devastate and kill us with their morbidity. Lesya Ukrainka referred to Ukraine in the following way:
My ruined, unfortunate land!
As I remember you
In the chest, the heart dies of longing and grief.
Ukraine and Ukrainians are the result of the work of destructive plasticity; they are people of a tragic fate, who, at the same time, did not lose, but, on the contrary, managed to nurture and preserve their humanity. At least for now. Having been placed in the position of a victim throughout their history, they did not become an inner victim. At the very beginning of the war, they joked that Ukrainian citizenship could be indicated in a resume instead of stress resistance. Ukraine, like Ukrainians, is always humiliated, but adamant, demonstrating to the whole world the power of cooperation, mutual support, and humane attitudes (even towards those who treat them inhumanly). Their tragic history has taught them this.
Since the death drive is the basic structure of the individual and society, we cannot get rid of it. But we can modify the form of its actualization. Today we can only choose different forms of suffering and dying, modes of existence in the mode of the tragic. There could no longer be any talk of optimism. In this regard, the whole world has a lot to learn from Ukraine, from its self-destructive humanity, its ability to support others and sacrifice themselves for others, even when it needs support more than others. In his essay Reflections on War and Death Freud warned that one should never adapt to war since it dehumanizes everyone. The only question is when. In the words of Freud, “[the war] forces us again to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death, it stamps all strangers as enemies whose death we ought to cause or wish; it counsels us to rise above the death of those whom we love”.[iii]
It is necessary to stop the war before it dehumanizes the last stronghold of humanity.
*Translated from Ukrainian by Duane Rousselle
[i] Slavoj, Žižek In Defense of Lost Causes. New York (Verso. August 19, 2007).
[ii] McGowan, Todd, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013) p. 13.
[iii] Freud, Sigmund, Reflections on War and Death . Trans. A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard).