My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this famously transitional work of 1920, Freud sets out to explain the prevalence of psychic activity that cannot obviously be attributed to the organism’s inclination to reduce tension, the reduction of which produces pleasure. After all, as a clinician, he was seeing neurotic and hysterical patients—very tense people. So, via a speculative tour of psychoanalytic theory circa 1920 as well as of early-20th-century biology, Freud arrives at the provisional conclusion that there are two drives or instincts operating in organisms: one that seeks to restore the equilibrium of inorganic life, to get back to the peace before birth, which is the death drive; and one that seeks to carry life forward, to bind life up, to make more life, which is the life instinct, or Eros.
He allows in the book that he is echoing Schopenhauer on will (death-drive) and representation (life-drive), and the translator’s introduction draws Nietzsche into it (presumably, Apollo = Eros and Dionysus = Thanatos). But Freud’s emphases are rather different from those of the earlier philosophers, both of whom conferred a kind of Gothic glamor on the Dionysian will-to-nothingness underlying organic existence; Freud—less reactionary but more conservative, you might say—is on the side of life; he seems to see neurosis as the death-drive’s desperate end-run around Eros, the defeat of the capacity for love on the road back to the placid equilibrium of the rocks and stones and trees. This romance with death is the sickness that needs to be cured in the eyes of Doctor/Father Freud, the last Abrahamic patriarch, the last priest of Apollo, our last defender, albeit disguised as mere scientist, of Hebraic and Hellenic idealism both. Toward the end of the book, he asserts:
Our views have from the very first been dualistic, and to-day they are even more definitely dualistic than before—now that we describe the opposition as being, not between ego instincts and sexual instincts but between life instincts and death instincts.
And after that, he nearly exclaims:
The pleasure principle seems actively to serve the death instincts.
This is, incidentally, a jargon-heavy book, a scientist’s labor full of qualification and hesitations and humble assurances, not a work of Schopenhauerean lucidity or Nietzschean excitement—you will have to go well beyond the pleasure principle to read it! What if Eros in literature manifests as difficulty? Maybe there’s something to be guilty about in guilty-pleasure reading after all.