An argument with Freud, and a reconsideration of his ideas. This book is an attempt to introduce the obvious into psychoanalytic theory, that the fear of death plays a seminal role in our psychology. Freud had a powerful fear of death. Yet he dismissed its importance in his theories about our motivations. This despite the fact that it was, by far, his most pressing neurotic symptom. It was the lurking monster in his most frightening and famous dream, the Dora dream. He looks into his patient Dora’s throat and discovers a horrifying lesion that he had missed. Like the Pharoah questioning Joseph, he has to understand what that dream means.
It takes hold of him, drives him to work on what will become “The Interpretation of Dreams.” The extent to which Freud had no choice about this undertaking can best be appreciated from his letter to Wilhelm Fleiss. He describes a process of working “to which every effort of thought has to be given and which gradually absorbs all other capacities and the ability to receive impressions– a sort of neoplastic substance that enters into one’s humanity and then replaces it. With me it is even more so. Work and earning are identical with me–so that I have become wholly carcinoma…my existence from now on is that of a neoplasm.” (Jones 1953)
A strange image describing one’s work, work that was later to be recognized as inspired. Eventually, what his dream meant became clear. The location of the lesion in the back of Dora’s throat was to be the exact spot that Freud’s throat cancer developed many years later. Had he felt a tickle there from his cigar smoking and then dreamt about it? Apparently. He had looked into the mouth of death. The cancer eventually killed him.
“The Interpretation of Dreams” is usually considered the birth of psychoanalysis. Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” He brilliantly wrestled with what he found there, asked many of the right questions. He came up with many right answers. But if his search for clarity about dreams, and the working of the unconscious, was induced by the Dora dream, what influence did it have on the body of his work ? He correctly discovered that in their dreams, unencumbered by the deliberate mind that occupies our daytime consciousness, his patients’ unsatisfied sexual cravings push to be fulfilled. The evidence was everywhere. But what about their fear of death? Certainly, many people are awakened by a dream in which they are about to die. There is much to learn from these dreams. Appreciating the reality of death, makes life more meaningful. It makes one’s relationships, one’s work, one’s discoveries all the more valuable.
Or trivial. But whatever one’s reaction, it is not possible to understand a person through their dreams without considering their relationship to their death. How could someone describing their work as a cancer, with an openly admitted powerful fear of death, ignore this aspect of the dream’s meaning and dismiss the fear of death as a major part of our psychology.
I have no answer, but clearly, he was wrong. It is not hard to find the fear of death constantly addressed in men’s thinking. It is usually transformed, put in a positive perspective. The best example is religion; to get rid of the fear of death, the Aztec’s practiced human sacrifice to appease the angry Gods. The Christians offered Christ to a more benevolent Jehovah. It is the road not taken by Abraham with his son, Isaac.
Century after century, Christians worried about their future after death. Transformed by religious doctrine, they were tormented with the dark possibilities awaiting them when they died. They were pious (or resolved to follow that path) in order to assure a place in heaven. But that wasn’t easy. Few men are entirely innocent. Especially in the past they were terrified that their moments of giving into temptation might land them in hell.
Even those quietly pious had their moments. Immortality is the cornerstone of Christianity, its most powerful ideal. Hundreds of millions of Bibles have been read, studied and held dear. (in contrast to this book which makes no promises) Christ promised his believers would live forever. What else has to be said to the fearful flock?
Today we see a revival of that passion. Isis members have been willing to fight ferociously and fearlessly, offer themselves for suicide missions, with the belief they will achieve the opposite result of their fear. They are guaranteed a heaven that is quintessentially the opposite of a revered Muslim life. Life as they have known it has centered on strictly imposed sexual suppression. It drives them crazy. Makes them turn on those who have given in. Yes they stone adulterers, but their own path is not a bed of roses. Young men, trying to defy their powerful hormonal push, pray several times a day to keep themselves under control.
How difference it is in Allah’s dynasty, where they will receive their reward. Not one, not two, 72 virgins await them in heaven after they die. It beats the promises of Jesus where heaven has never been adequately imagined. Angels playing harps? I suppose that means, paradise consists of innocence completely restored. Essentially asexual composure awaits the virtuous Is this the best reward Christ can offer?
Modern Western secular consciousness is quite different. Since the existence of God is dubious, happiness in this life is all we have. So that is what we pursue. The fear of death is resolved very differently. Virtuous behavior is redefined (exercise, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and the most virtuous of all, “organic” food). This belief system is transformative in religion’s usual ways. Fantastic beliefs are bought and believed, logic and evidence tossed away.
That is not a problem. Whatever bargaining, compromising, and self deception is required, when it comes to religion, the mind is up to the task. Faith and spirituality invariably trump common sense. Or any and all evidence. Information about nutrition and exercise, has run in a thousand different directions, with an astounding number of easily tested ideas promulgated and going unchallenged.
As might be expected, when it comes to religion, people can go over board. In its modern incarnation some people become fanatical about the organic purity of their food. They become “glaat” kosher. Many become sanctimonious, outraged by the lack of healthy eating by others. Or they are angry that corporate agribusiness is poisoning them. The inventory they do of their soul would not be recognizable by the conventionally religious Their virtues and vices are measured by whether or not they gave in to temptation and ate that slice of pizza, or whether they forgoed their morning workout.
Whatever language we use, the fear of death insinuates itself into our consciousness, demanding solutions. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t offer a solution to the basic problem. As Woody Allen put it “I don’t want to be immortal because of my work. I want to be immortal by living forever.”
P.S. Readers seeking great wisdom, (or any wisdom at all) about how to cope with death or dying should look elsewhere. This book is specifically concerned with developmental psychoanalytic theory. Twenty-five years ago that was my passion. I spent five years writing this book. It is an interesting primer for those wanting to dive into Freud’s and my thinking about a host of subjects too varied to easily summarize. I hope it has my usual passion to lay bare mysteries that are unnecessarily ineffable. I once believed that truth is unmistakably helpful and important, a virtue of the highest order. I have had no choice. It is what I must do for reasons unknown to me. Now I only half believe it is crucial. Kindness is more important.