Explaining Thanatos (The Death Drive)
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.
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?