September 1995By Robert Coles
Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School.
When I was studying psychiatry, and especially psychoanalysis, I read and heard a great deal about "aggression," which Freud would eventually give the status of a "drive" -- a seemingly inevitable part of our nature. He had for years been all taken up with "libido," his way of referring to the sexual interests and energy which each of us, in one way or another, gets to feel at work in our minds (not to mention our bodies). The more he listened to his patients, and, maybe, the better he understood himself, and, certainly, the more he took notice of the tragedies of war that descended on the so-called civilized continent of Europe in the first decades of this century, the more he had second thoughts about his theory of instinctual life -- the singularity of the erotic, no matter its disguises. In the 1920s he was clearly ready to posit an aggressive side to our mental makeup -- and he was not talking about something occasional or acquired by virtue of troublesome experiences, but rather a universally present aspect of all of our psychological lives. In a metapsychological leap (a speculation really, because we are not in the realm of empirical natural science, where an assertion can be rigorously tested and proved true or misleading or false) he spoke of a "death instinct," by which, grandly (he was not without conceptual ambition), he meant not only the inevitable limitations of our mortality, but something that has to do with our daily struggles with one another as human beings, something present in children and youths, never mind older people -- an aspect of our being, as surely as sexuality (whether openly expressed or kept under wraps) is a part of who we are, what we think and desire.
In my clinical psychoanalytic work, Freud's ideas on sexuality were, of course, constantly being summoned, by me or by the supervisors of my work, to whom I constantly reported" those case presentations and discussions which helped us rookies slowly become more sure-footed. But I was puzzled by that drive called "aggression" -- Freud even dubbed it "Thanatos" at one point, an escalation that enabled him to rival his beloved Greek thinkers and writers" Eros as against Thanatos, a confrontation worthy of an Aeschylus, a Sophocles! I found it considerably harder to pin down, to comprehend "aggression." So often the anger, the ire, the rage of my patients was prompted by difficulties I came to regard as broadly sexual in nature -- the frustrations and disappointments in the various attachments they sought, or sought without success to maintain. Sexual rage is, of course, no new (20th-century) discovery; nor sexual jealousy, nor sexual assault -- "aggression" as an expression of desire and its vicissitudes, its aberrances and worse. Still, I had one supervisor who was accessible enough, unassuming enough, for me to dare talk with him "in general" -- to pose questions that clearly showed me to be ignorant, naïve, all too awkward and imprecise in the way I looked at not only my patients, but the everyday life around me. Once, I put this question to Dr. Ludwig" "I wonder about this drive' called aggression' or thanatos' -- how to recognize it in my patients." He smiled, and replied, more or less like this" "I think you could take a look, first, at yourself, or at me, at anyone nearby, and you'll see those everyday moments of pettiness and crankiness, of irritation and anger, that are, so often, irreducible -- that is, they are not a substitute for something else, a cover for another problem,' or impulse' (meaning libido'), but rather, they tell you and me that no matter how normal' or well-adjusted' we are, no matter how lucky and fortunate our [psychological, sociological, cultural, racial] fate has been, we're inevitably going to have our darker moments, times when we're sour, inadequately responsive, distant, doubtful, displeased with someone or something, put-out, out of sorts, you use whatever word you want. Life for everyone is frustrating at some point -- and, besides, we can't always feel satisfied,' even when we are, when our lives, by and large, are satisfying."
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