Repetitions Unto Death

This is a short paper written for my Freud I course at NPAP, November 2015:

Immersed in American optimism and its ubiquitous marketing of happiness, I find myself drawn to the dreary. In psychoanalytic literature I like that which has a feeling of tragedy, melancholy, or impossibility. It is not real human suffering that pleases me, just to be clear, but rather the aesthetic of tragedy, like Oedipus, or Antigone, or the work of Lacan. In Freud I am pulled towards the bits popularly perceived as “pessimistic”—those like repetition compulsion and the death drive. These ideas offer a refreshing contrast to the sugary optimism of popular psychology and our aim as a species to evade death through technological and medical advancements. This paper looks at repetition compulsion and the death instinct in Freud’s texts, which bring out the melancholy flavor of life that is always already traveling towards death.

Freud’s concept of the compulsion to repeat makes its first appearance (to my knowledge) in Remembering, Repeating and Working Through (1914). Here the patient recalls nothing of the repressed material, but rather unconsciously acts it out. “He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it” (p. 150). The repetition occurs of its own agency, unbeknownst to the patient who consciously tries to remember and articulate the past in order to be “cured” by talking. The force of unconscious repetition reigns over the conscious agent who is trying so hard to do otherwise. This suggests that the conscious self is not the center of agency, but rather something else, something unconscious, the unconscious, has more sway in the movement of things.

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious decenters and deflates the conscious agency, who has historically felt itself arrogantly center and in charge. Freud (1920) emphasizes the fact that consciousness is just one aspect of the psyche, perhaps even secondary or peripheral: “Psycho- analytic speculation takes as its point of departure the impression, derived from examining unconscious processes, that consciousness may be, not the most universal attribute of mental processes, but only a particular function of them” (p. 24). This description of consciousness as “only a particular function” of mental activity situates consciousness as an appendage to the larger mass of dynamic activity rumbling outside of consciousness, determining the subject’s movement in the action of repetition.

Lacan’s preferred translation of Wiederholungszwang: automatisme de répétition, passes into English as “automation of repetition” rather than “the compulsion to repeat”, the latter of which implies that the conscious subject is compelled to repeat, while the former has the feeling of an automatic force of repetition running of its own accord. This could be verbalized as the distinction between “I am compelled to repeat” and “repetition is happening”.

“Repetition happening” has an element of otherness, something outside of the self, commonly thought of as destiny. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud observes: “The impression they [some people] give is of being pursued by a malignant fate or possessed by some ‘daemonic’ power (p. 21). This quasi-mystical perspective places the blame in external forces—in the cards or in the stars. Freud continues: “...but psychoanalysis has always taken the view that their fate is for the most part arranged by themselves and determined by early infantile influences” (p. 21). The psychoanalytic view locates the cause of events in the individual with his or her unconscious penetrated by the influence of others. This has a feeling of both inside and outside, self and other, at the source of repetition.

The inside/outside, self/other distinction is further complicated in the work of Lacan as for him the unconscious comprises the language of the Other. In his 1955 seminar he reiterates: “Here we rediscover what I’ve already pointed out to you, namely that the unconscious is the discourse of the other... it is the discourse of the circuit in which I am integrated” (p. 89). This circuit, the syntax that structures the unconscious, limits the range of the subject’s originality, thus ultimately he or she is structurally destined to repeat. Lacan continues: “ can’t stop the chain of discourse...” (p. 89). The symbolic order has a feeling of running on its own—over and over in a circular path—it is the automation of repetition determining the subject.

“Repetition happening” could also be articulated as “it is repeating”. When Freud introduces the vocabulary of ego and id, his language is “I” and “It”. “It” has a feeling of otherness, something alien, the disavowed part of the self no longer recognized by the “I”. It is the “It” or id that is doing the repeating. Freud (1926) elaborates: “The fixating factor in repression, then, is the unconscious id's compulsion to repeat” (emphasis added, p. 153). Here, the id is the guilty agent carrying the ego along in unintentional and sometimes painful reoccurrences.

The repeating agent seeks to regain a lost previous state—an inanimate state. Again and again repetition searches for the irretrievable past—the quiescence of non-being. Freud (1920) observes: “If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’” (p. 38). And more advanced organisms “make ever more complicated détours before reaching [their] aim of death” (p. 39). This paints a beautifully peaceful view of the aim of life, not to attain greatness, power, or immortality, but rather to meander meaningfully towards death.

The quiescent sinking back into the earth of the death instinct described above stands in stark qualitative contrast to the destructive impulse articulated in Freud’s (1930) later work, although he identifies both as the same drive: “This aggressive instinct is the derivative and the main representative of the death instinct...” (p. 122). The internal movement of the organism softening back into the earth in Beyond the Pleasure Principle turns outwards in hostile aggression towards each other. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud entertains an idea that the destructive drive may be the end of the species: “Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man” (p. 145). We may actually end up annihilating ourselves. After briefly savoring the pleasurable pessimism of this, I will leave you with the surprisingly hopeful words of Lacan: “The human being himself is in part outside life, he partakes of the death instinct. Only from there can he engage in the register of life” (p. 90). This is the dialectical moving forward of life with its underbelly of death.



Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through. SE XII, 145-156.

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. SE XVIII, 1-64. Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. SE XIX, 1-66.

Freud, S. (1926). Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety. SE XX, 75-176.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and It’s Discontents. SE XXI.

Lacan, J. (1991). Seminar Book II, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. Norton: New York.