X Close

Freud would know why we’re all workaholics Our culture of overwork is a means of running away from the inevitable descent into nothingness

The toad commute: We work hard, ever harder, to rage against the dying of the light. Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty

The toad commute: We work hard, ever harder, to rage against the dying of the light. Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty

January 9, 2020   5 mins

It is a hundred years since Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and with it introduced an idea that has remained controversial ever since: the ‘death drive’.

Freud had previously imagined human beings as being driven exclusively by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. With the death drive he postulated an altogether more complex part of our unconscious psychological make-up: that alongside our desire for pleasure, runs some sort of desire for our own destruction. We are driven by an allegiance to two very different gods: Eros and Thanatos.

What made Freud reconsider the exclusive dominance of the pleasure principle in human lives was the compulsion in several of his patients to play out to themselves, and to repeat, painful experiences from their past. In what way, for instance, could the repeated nightmares of those who had witnessed so much death and destruction during the Great War be understood in terms of the psyche seeking pleasure? Why do dreams return us again and again to traumatic experiences of destruction?

Something other than pleasure maximisation had to be going on here. And the desire to replay destructiveness is not merely some psychological leakage that takes place in the middle of the night. What about the tendency we have to repeat destructive patterns of behaviour in our own lives? How many of us have the same New Year’s resolutions this year that we had last year and the year before? Aren’t we constantly battling with something destructive within — a smoking habit, for instance — that we claim we want to rid ourselves of, and yet which always ‘gets the better of us’. Perhaps on some level, we will our own destruction.

Freud’s was not a completely original proposal. In the early 19th century, Schopenhauer had explored the idea that human unhappiness is generated by desire. Obviously, not getting what you want can make you unhappy. But what Schopenhauer noticed was that even getting what you want is not unproblematic, for satisfied desire is often just the elimination of the desire itself, and often merely a temporary return to the condition of not desiring – post-coital, oblivious, smoking a fag. The French call it “la petite morte”, the little death.

Actually, smoking is an excellent example. Lighting up a fag, and breathing in the nicotine, is a way to quiet the desire for a cigarette. It is a way to deal with the desiring. To make it go away. The aim of smoking is to stop that insistent desire to smoke. And if the aim of desire – Eros — is to make the desiring go away, then death, the absence of desire, is its ultimate goal. Buddhism runs something similar. And so, at some level, does Christianity:

“Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.”

Little wonder, then, that we talk about death as being ‘at peace’.

Desire is what motivates our survival. Yet desire is also what generates our frustration and unhappiness. For Freud, this complex formula is famously the drama of the child and built in to our earliest experiences. The child desires its parent, but the parent is already taken and is “taboo”. In this sense, our earliest desires are also experienced as forbidden, and so the trauma of childhood is one of frustrated desire.

Freud describes adult life as a process of recovery, of learning (and failing) to accommodate unmet needs. Such a history points in the direction of both Eros and Thanatos – to Eros, as the motivating rage against unmet desire, and to Thanatos as the unspoken realisation that the only way to quell the fire of desire is to abolish the desiring.

None of this is more clearly exposed than within our working lives. In his brilliant book on our culture of overworking, Not Workingthe psychoanalyst Josh Cohen explores this interplay of Eros and Thanatos in the context of our obsession with professional advancement and ‘getting on’.

“The life drive seeks more of everything. Through sexual reproduction and hard work, it ensures that the species renews itself and that new life can be sustained. Through curiosity, imagination and practical application, it created new territories, ideas, communities, technologies and cultures. The life drive would go on without stopping if it could.”

But, of course, you can’t go on forever, without stopping. We work hard, ever harder, to rage against the dying of the light. But slowing down is an inbuilt part of the mechanics of human biology. And, on some level, we are also grateful for it, we desire it.

 “When Freud suggests that the death drive insinuates itself quietly and invisibly into the life drive, seeking to inhibit its forward movement, he reminds us that even in the most manically expansive and ambitious periods in the life of an individual or a people, there is a moment of sluggishness. [Consider] the voice of lassitude whispering: Really? Can you be bothered? Wouldn’t you rather stay in bed?” 

A propos New Year’s resolutions, Cohen makes the telling point that even here we have turned ‘giving up’ stuff — stopping doing things — into a form of hard work. It’s now another project of the self, another thing for the to-do list, another basis for advancement.

The subtitle to Cohen’s book — “why we have to stop” — references a very different form of stopping. His ‘stopping’ is a release from the endless wheel of getting on. It is something that makes its peace with being at peace — not as the premature acceptance of death, and not the peace of the slacker or the slob, but the sort of peace that comes from not being constantly run by the drum beat of a very professionalised kind of Eros. Of not being constantly driven by a neurotic version of the life force that has been cleverly harnessed by capitalism.

In theological terms, Cohen’s pitch is much more the Jewish sabbath than the Protestant work ethic. Paint a painting, daydream more, play more, go for a walk, read a book. Maybe start with Cohen’s Not Working — there is no better antidote to all those forward planning meetings, setting ambitious goals, filling up all those empty pages in your diary.

“Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?” complains Phillip Larkin. But Cohen’s point is that we do it to ourselves. That our culture of overwork, of constantly checking and sending off e-mails, of setting up yet another meeting, can easily become all about us running away from our eventual descent into nothingness. Cohen is right to suggest that instead of this panic, we should make friends with our finitude.

Too much thinking about the death drive has overly associated it with a kind of malevolence — we might think of Dr Strangelove or Donald Trump starting World War Three in the Middle East. And it is true that the death drive has some dark power, reminding us of our terrible fascination with war and violence.

But there is another side to it. What Cohen proposes is not some malevolent celebration of death, or even the celebration of that stupefied nothingness offered by an enveloping sofa and a glass of wine. Rather, what he points to is a kind of letting go that promises welcome release from the Duracell bunny version of Eros.

That kind of Eros is often a desperate version of the need to pretend that we will never die, that we will never fall silent. And that kind of Eros is trapped in something both scared and foolish. In other words, we can presume too quickly that Thanatos is our enemy. And so, as we cling desperately to Eros, we become its slave.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments