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Explaining Thanatos (The Death Drive)

February 28, 2011

It’s in that moment you stare over the edge of a high cliff, or stairway, where there is no railing to catch you.  You waver there at the top, and for a split instance, be honest now, don’t you feel the thrill of dread that you might fall, you might move too close, that you might (horror of un-admitable horrors) do it almost on purpose?

It’s in driving your car too fast to control, in the desire to sky dive, in the thrill of unprotected sex with a stranger, the desire to drink too much, too quickly.  It is the death drive, the instinct towards chaos.  It is Thanatos, as coined by Herbert Marcuse.  Ladies and gents, we all have this conflicted drive towards self-oblivion.  We all consciously engage in behavior that is not so good for us, that is self-destructive.  We all wonder ‘Why the hell am I doing this to myself?’ even as we do it, over and over again.  The simple answer is: it’s part of being human.  The complicated answer….

Let’s look at the historical perspective.

In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the demon of death; a dead white dude (Greek poet Hesiod)  wrote that the death drive Thanatos was the son of Nyx (night) and Erebos (darkness), and a twin, or half brother, to Hypnos (sleep).  (The concept of sleep as being related to death is not an uncommon one; the whole ‘To be or not to be’ speech in Hamlet makes a direct comparison: “To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream.”  But I get sidetracked.) Thanatos was associated with a variety of other Greek personified baddies, like doom, deception and suffering.  Thanatos wasn’t simply a demon of death though; in some versions, he is a guide to the dead, leading them to Hades.  This is the characteristic of Thanatos that Freud, Marcuse and other like minded psychoanalysts took over a thousand years later.

Cause the reaper image just wasn't cutting it.

A Renaissance painting of Hypnos (Sleep) and brother Thanatos (Death)

According to Freud (who by the way, is simply brilliant, which is obvious if one reads his works directly, and not third party regurgitations of his ideas) human beings all have a life instinct, Eros, which drives them to procreate, have survival skills – and a death drive – later coined as Thanatos.  The death drive compels humans to engage in risky and self-destructive acts that could lead to their own death (a desire to return to the inorganic state from which they came).

This conception of a innate desire to self-destruction is controversial, and rightly so.  People don’t like the idea that people want to hurt themselves, and it seems at odds with the strong biological to reproduce and help your prodigy (and genes) survive.

But I feel like the evidence for Thanatos existing is overwhelming, if only in anecdotal ways.  Personally, I have a strong drive towards self-sabotage daily.  Thanatos exists in the little sins I commit in the everyday: I deliberately wake up late, almost everyday, so that I am late to work, which doesn’t escape the notice of my bosses.  I smoke sometimes to relieve stress, even though smoking is the number one cause of preventable death (I was part of an anti-smoking club in middle school for crying out loud, what happened?)  When I was in middle school, to try to prove to myself I had control over my life, I would conduct random fasts, and not eat anything for a day.  And these are only the most overt forms of battles I rage against myself; what about self destructive thoughts (I am worthless, I am ugly, I am stupid etc etc, ad nauseum).

And I’m a ‘normal’ child.

To try to get a better grip on why I (and presumably others) sometimes tend towards self destructive thoughts and actions, I interviewed a few people about what they considered their self-destructive behaviors.  I exclusively interviewed college educated men in women in their early twenties, so please don’t take this as a scientifically rigorous case study.  I asked the following four questions:

1.  Do you feel like you engage in self destructive behaviors?  If so, what kind of behaviors do you engage in?

2.  In what way are these actions destructive?  Can you think of a particular instance when engaging in a self destructive action negatively impacted your life?

3.  Why do you engage in self destructive behaviors?

4.  Do you feel in any way ‘addicted’ to your self destructive behaviors?  If so, in what way?

The responses I got were varied, but mostly dealt with very obvious cause and effect type behaviors:

“I drink too much, I get a hangover, why did I drink that much?  Oh yeah, it was fun.”

“I discovered cutting myself accidentally, digging my nails into my skin until I bled in times of stress. It became a mode of stress relief.”

“I regularly engage in actions that others may consider self-destructive, including drinking alcohol, regularly overworking myself with school, not engaging in good self-care, etc. I don’t usually consider these behaviors self-destructive, just part of being a young person within my particular social and academic culture.”

When queried as to why they drank too much, cut themselves, cut class, sabotaged healthy relationships with boys in favor of a ‘bad boy’, isolated themselves, etc, that’s where it became more interesting.

Stress relief was a common thread. Apparently self destructive behavior was cathartic, gave “emotional release.”    One respondent put it especially eloquently,

  • “Because it offers a quick and easy feeling of resolution to things. Like, if you’ve had a protractedly crappy day and are feeling like shit, you feel this slow boil in your stomach, like there’s a weight in there about to rupture something. If I cut myself, though, then it feels like that pain has come to the surface, like whatever was mentally wrong can be translated into something physical. Since physical pain is easier to deal with, it feels like the lesser of two evils.”

It also gives a feeling of control (I can choose to engage in this behavior, and look, I am still alive and doing alright.). Self-destructive behavior was often a ritual, conducted to give a semblance of order to a chaotic life.

Thanatos also provides an easy way out for why something didn’t work out, as opposed to an explanation that is more personal and identity-collapsing.  For instance, one respondent indicated that whenever she felt like he was getting too close to a new boyfriend, she would deliberately sleep with someone else in a drunken one-night stand.  Thus, when the relationship fell apart, she could blame her one night as the reason he left her, and not her personality.

Self-destructive behavior also reinforces, quixotically, that the person is indeed alive. The ability to feel pain proves life, numbness is associated with death.  Here the death drive is used by the individual to demonstrate their desire for life.

In short, the death drive persists even in the face of consequences.  One respondent wrote that the worse part of her cutting wasn’t the physical scars, but that it alienated friends and hurt family members.  It also drove her into associating only with “friends often as self destructive as I, or more.”

What are your opinions on Thanatos?  Do you have a death drive within you?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Diana Camosy permalink
    March 1, 2011 10:56 AM

    There’s a pretty classic Latin phrase that about sums up what you’re describing: “Media vita in morte sumus” (In the midst of life, we are in death). Also, the phenomenon of feeling more alive and in control by engaging in self-destructive behaviors is explored thoroughly in two books you might be interested in––”Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” both by Jonathan Shay.

  2. March 9, 2011 2:38 PM

    Very interesting. In reading through this I started thinking about my own death drive urges. I’m not sure how much I think that all people have this death drive, but I do think that some people definitely have that and it might be interesting to see which segments of the population are effected by it more strongly.

  3. October 22, 2012 9:09 AM

    i am very interested in this subject, only discovered it the other day but i have decided to do a documentary on it for a class project.

  4. January 27, 2013 12:23 PM

    thanks for this discussion; it’s very interesting. A student in my Native American Lit class found your blog; we are discussing Thanatos and Eros regarding destructive behaviors among diverse Native Americans as described in fiction by Leslie Silko and Sherman Alexie, among others. I’m wondering if anyone thinks that the death drive is stronger in those who feel they have nothing to lose, even though we all apparentl
    y share this impulse.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    February 8, 2013 8:53 PM

    maybe that’s why some people tend to be more morbid than the rest of the society. like i have this unusual obsession on the concept of death, either through academic discussions or in literature and movies. but i feel like it’s quite therapeutic because i believe doing those allows me to understand myself better. it’s like getting obsessed about “dying” makes me appreciate life more.

  6. chelsea permalink
    September 24, 2013 10:12 AM

    Interesting point about the sense of control that comes from self-destructive behavior. I would like to add that, as Freud says in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, being a part of civilization causes us to repress our thoughts, impulses, and actions continually. This repression leads to subconscious frustration. In order to relieve this frustration we turn the damage inward on ourselvesn inflicting pain and acting out the malice that stems from a deep, and often unknown/unrecognizeable unhappiness. In addition to this (again coming from Freud), without death, life is boring and unchallenging. This is why death is a common part of movies and books. We die vicariously through fictional characters and it gives the sense of relief and excitement that we crave but are prevented from attaining in our civilly-repressed lifestyles.

    • September 24, 2013 5:49 PM

      Couldn’t have said it better myself- it is this dialogue between the conscious and unconscious selves that creates some of the destructive tension manifesting as thanatos. And the cognitive dissonance, I guess, between the private and the public.

  7. August 6, 2014 5:34 AM

    Human beings are basically dominated by two type of instincts.One is possitive and other one is just the opposite of it..

    http://psytreasure.com/freuds-theory-instincts-eros-thanatos/

  8. Cyril permalink
    September 25, 2014 2:19 PM

    I think that self destruction may also be the human tendency to self sacrifice for a higher cause or probable desired outcome later on.
    Also, considering that we, as complex beings are made of parts wich are separate in a way, a desire to self destruct may be the desire of the parts for regaining individuality due to inefficiency of the human they form. like cancer wich is essentially a parasitic form originating in the body but with no function in the body and no ability to survive outside of it.
    I find a lot of similarity between human social structure, and the individual structure of a person..

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