How to Look Death in the Eyes: Freud and Bataille


Death’s place in psychoanalysis is very problematic. Beginning with Freud, death can be variously said to have been repressed, reduced, pathologized, or forgotten altogether. Within Freud’s writings, however, one article stands in contradistinction to this trend, by making a claim for death’s centrality. Although it has received relatively little attention, “Thoughts for the times on war and death,” published in 1915, is a fascinating discussion about our attitudes towards death, which comprise both a “cultural-conventional attitude” that Freud so pertinently, almost wickedly, criticizes, and the attitude common to the unconscious and to primeval man. The cultural conventional attitude is characterized by continual rejection of death: we put it away, refuse to talk about it, attribute it to chance events (“Thoughts” 291–92). For primeval man, and in the unconscious, death is wished for when it is the death of an other but is denied as regards oneself.

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