On Transience: Freud’s Requiem on his 150th birthday

May 6th would be Sigmund Freud’s 150th birthday, which of course is a good time to reflect on how he looked at death.

In the short piece below Freud reflects on some of the different ways people come to terms with mortality and the transient nature of the world. The piece is sometimes referred to as “Freud’s Requiem.”

Freud wrote “the requiem” in November 1915. He was 60, and his two sons were somewhere away in the war. Many of his most important writings were yet to be penned. I write “penned”  because Freud wrote all of his manuscripts in a beautiful flowing, full-bodied longhand script. His standard works are translated into 24 volumes, and there are dozens of more books on his correspondence and other papers.

It may be true that there are no longer any real “Freudians”. Yet in another sense we are all Freudians. We borrow and use his language every day. He introduced to our culture dozens of psychological terms, many which have made their way into common usage: Defense, Repression, Narcissism, The Unconsious, Ego, Id, and SuperEgo. I could go on and on. Our self-understanding, and our understanding of the world, has been forever informed by his central idea that we have an unconscious mind which largely directs our everyday life.

In the last paragraph of this little piece, Freud lays the groundwork for his important concept of “anticipatory mourning.” This presages his ideas on the importance of narcissism (and defending against narcissistic wounding) in everyday life.

Freud’s concept of anticipatory mourning laid the groundwork of our contemporary understandings of  why some people remain isolated from others, and why some are unable to make meaningful commitments to work, friends, their partners, their community, or other areas of value. Those who suffer from severe unresolved loss, develop a fear of connecting in a deep way with the present. They have not learned how to work through loss, so they get “stuck in it” and develop a great fear of it. This fear motivates them to avoid loss in the future, by not connecting with the present. Their “anticipatory mourning” gets in the way of investing emotional energy in people or projects.  In layman’s terms, we think of these persons as self-centered. The result is a kind of prickliness, which is one form of what we label “narcissism.”  From this perspective, a “narcissistic defense” is simply a way of defending against anticipated loss.

Few of us get very far in life before we experience some kind of significant  loss, be it the loss of someone we love, the loss of an ideal world, or a loss of pride.  Lingering and  unresolved grief is common in our culture, and of course endemic in the many countries where war, terror or deprivation is an everyday occurence. There is a struggle to deeply commit to making new connections, and new ways of loving.  Our old ways of connection wear thin as we traverse the passage of time and stages of life.  Commiting to a future is an ongoing act of courage made possible not by denying loss but by recognizing loss, mourning,  and moving on.   Freud ends his requiem on a note of optimism.

For other commentary on Freud’s Requiem, see these web-postings: 1 and 2.  

On Transience, By Sigmund Freud (1915)
Translation by James Strachey

Not long ago I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet. The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.

The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind. The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted. No! it is impossible that all this loveliness of Nature and Art, of the world of our sensations and of the world outside, will really fade away into nothing. It would be too senseless and too presumptuous to believe it. Somehow or other this loveliness must be able to persist and to escape all the powers of destruction.

But this demand for immortality is a product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality: what is painful may none the less be true. I could not see my way to dispute the transience of all things, nor could I insist upon an exception in favour of what is beautiful and perfect. But I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.

On the contrary, an increase! Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment. It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it. As regards the beauty of Nature, each time it is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal. The beauty of the human form and face vanish for ever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm. A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely. Nor can I understand any better why the beauty and perfection of a work of art or of an intellectual achievement should lose its worth because of its temporal limitation. A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues which we admire to-day will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers, or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases; but since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

These considerations appeared to me incontestable; but I noticed that I had made no impression either upon the poet or upon my friend. My failure led me to infer that some powerful emotional factor was at work which was disturbing their judgement, and I believed later that I had discovered what it was. What spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning. The idea that all this beauty was transient was giving these two sensitive minds a foretaste of mourning over its decease; and, since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful, they felt their enjoyment of beauty interfered with by thoughts of its transience.

Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We possess, as it seems, a certain amount of capacity for love—what we call libido—which in the earliest stages of development is directed towards our own ego. Later, though still at a very early time, this libido is diverted from the ego on to objects, which are thus in a sense taken into our ego. If the objects are destroyed or if they are lost to us, our capacity for love (our libido) is once more liberated; and it can then either take other objects instead or can temporarily return to the ego. But why it is that this detachment of libido from its objects should be such a painful process is a mystery to us and we have not hitherto been able to frame any hypothesis to account for it. We only see that libido clings to its objects and will not renounce those that are lost even when a substitute lies ready to hand. Such then is mourning.

My conversation with the poet took place in the summer before the war. A year later the war broke out and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beauty of the countrysides through which it passed and the works of art which it met with on its path but it also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists and our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nations and races. It tarnished the lofty impartiality of our science, it revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose the evil spirits within us which we thought had been tamed for ever by centuries of continuous education by the noblest minds. It made our country small again and made the rest of the world far remote. It robbed us of very much that we had loved, and showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.

We cannot be surprised that our libido, thus bereft of so many of its objects, has clung with all the greater intensity to what is left to us, that our love of our country, our affection for those nearest us and our pride in what is common to us have suddenly grown stronger. But have those other possessions, which we have now lost, really ceased to have any worth for us because they have proved so perishable and so unresistant? To many of us this seems to be so, but once more wrongly, in my view. I believe that those who think thus, and seem ready to make a permanent renunciation because what was precious has proved not to be lasting, are simply in a state of mourning for what is Lost. Mourning, as we know, however painful it may be comes to a spontaneous end. When it has renounced everything that has been lost, then it has consumed itself, and our libido is once more free (in so far as we are still young and active) to replace the lost objects by fresh ones equally or still more precious. It is to be hoped that the same will be true of the losses caused by this war. When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.