Drives and Drive-Fates

One of the most valuable parts of my summer seminar (which just ended yesterday) was that it gave me a chance to really work through Freud’s key texts on the drives. The one that has stayed with me the most is Triebe und Triebschicksale (Drives and Drive-Fates), which is normally translated “Instincts and their Vicissitudes.” The inappropriateness of “instinct” as a translation for Trieb is widely acknowledged, but what about “vicissitudes” for the puzzling “drive-fates”? As Eric Santner observed, “vicissitudes” has etymological roots in the area of the “vicarious,” and Freud does talk about how drives can substitute for each other, so basically there’s some justification — but at the end of the day, Freud seemingly uses “Schicksal” (in the meta-psychological writings and elsewhere) as a technical term for what one might call the “outcome” of drive-dynamics, and I think that “vicissitude” just doesn’t work for that usage. More importantly, though, really dwelling on the notion of “fate” has helped me to understand better what’s going on with drives, and the English translation, by covering up the systematic usage of “Schicksal,” likely never would have led me to the same insights.

To get at Freud’s concept of fate, we should look to Freud’s own favored point of reference in Greek tragedy: Oedipus Rex. Sophocles presents the oracle’s prophecy as a brute fact, with no explanation or motivation. While the mythological tradition explained that Oedipus’s father had offended the gods and hence deserved punishment, Sophocles omits that background. The prophecy thus simply is. To that extent, it is meaningless, outside the space of reasons. It is simply a demand that will be somehow fulfilled. How does one deal with such a demand from within the space of reason? In some cases, one might simply go along with it, but this one is pretty horrifying — and so one runs away. Indeed, one runs away and plays one’s cards so amazingly right that one winds up a beloved and wise king. Yet the demand of the prophecy will be fulfilled, and as it turns out, it is precisely one’s amazingly right decisions that led to its fulfillment.

Drives are the same kinds of implacable demands. They are outside the space of reason, both in the sense of being unexplained brute facts and in the sense of asserting their demands even though they are in conflict with each other and with physical reality. In order to operate within a social space of reasons, one must somehow negotiate with these drives, fulfilling some and putting off others — indeed, totally rejecting or refusing some. Drives are clever, though (perhaps Freud wants us to hear a secondary meaning of Geschick, skill, in Schicksal), and they will find a way to make their demands felt. This means that one’s sensible strategies will always have unintended side-effects (as when the decision to identify with the Father gives birth to the implacable superego).

The neuroses and psychoses are a description of various unsustainable solutions to the problem of drives — but normality isn’t a “successful” strategy, it’s just a less-bad one. There is no room for success here, because the problem of the drives is inherently unfixable. It’s our inexorable fate. The question is whether we can develop new, more livable strategies that open up more of a space for a future, or — in more radical visions — whether we can tap into the drives themselves as a powerful source for creative transformation.

6 thoughts on “Drives and Drive-Fates

  1. I find the description of drives, early in the Vicissitudes essay, as pressures from which we cannot fly, chilling. Much like the Erinyes and their implacable pursuit. It’s interesting to think of the nervous system’s clever struggle to master stimuli that come from within as the flaw that drives the ongoing tragedy of a human’s psychic life. On this mythicized telling is the cleverness of Oedipus like “normalcy” — fate gets you in the end but at least you had a good run — or like one of the more unsustainable coping methods? I would guess normalcy since to behave as Oedipus and identify with the father is sort of the standard way out of the problem bearing his name, but if so it’s a disturbing idea that a Greek tragedy provides the paradigm of human normalcy. Or maybe the art of tragedy is a sort of creative transformation of the problem, of the sort you mention at the end, so that the centrality of Oedipus is actually a sort of hopeful thing.

    Funny how a thymos filled comment-thread can distract one from reading new posts. I almost passed over this one. Glad I didn’t: it resolved the beach read problem I was struggling with for tomorrow. Definitely Freud.

  2. It’s hard to know where to place Oedipus himself. On the one hand, he certainly gets a huge pay-off, at least for a while — but then the repressed returns with a vengeance. To me, the more disturbing possibility is that even the unsustainable coping mechanisms might count as the “right” decisions, or at least as understandable decisions, at the time they’re instituted. For instance, Freud will always emphasize that repression in itself is not yet neurosis — neurosis is the blowback from an attempted repression that may well have worked under other circumstances (after all, “normal” people have a ton of repressed drives).

  3. It problematizes the idea of normalcy at all. If any coping mechanism is right when instituted, then the whole psychoanalysis-gives-us-a-pattern-of-healthy-psychic-development thing (which, e.g., Habermas tries to use as a model for social criticism in Knowledge and Human Interests) falls by the wayside. I like that, because one of the troubling things to me about Freud — in the limited study of him I’ve made — is the way an idea of “healthy” development leads him to suggest, for example, that homosexuality is deviant. Perhaps a close reading along the Oedipal lines you’re suggesting would free the whole project from the need for a model of health or normality.

  4. Right, I think Freud is of two minds here, and that both of the poles between which he oscillates come from his overriding concern to relieve his patients’ suffering. So on the one hand, conforming to social norms would from one perspective be the best outcome insofar as it wouldn’t entail ostracization, etc. — hence homosexuality is deviant, a problem to be overcome. But on the other hand, Freud also recognizes that those very social norms are what’s making his patients sick, and so he advocates for loosening them at least to some extent (even if some form of social constraint and its accompanying superego seem to be a tragic necessity if human social life is to be livable at all).

  5. The question of Freud’s position on homosexuality shouldn’t be construed as simply pathologizing it. First, in his Three Essays there’s the notion that all humans are born with bisexuals urges and development compels us to develop certain stable object choices for sexual gratification. Moreover, there once was an American woman who wrote Freud because she was worried that her son (who was homosexual) might be pathological. Freud wrote, “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by certain arrest of sexual development.” ( There’s clearly a sense that homosexuality is not the most normal outcome of development but I think this letter proves that Freud was no homophobe.

    Regarding normalcy, I agreed with Adam that it should be recognized that Freud really thought that repressed European culture was making people sick. It seriously impeded the normal sexual development of women and Freud believed that sexual immaturity and unpleasure led to neurosis and symptoms. Consider the case of Anna O, it was obvious that the lack of educational and occupational opportunities for that brilliant woman contributed to her hysteria along with constrained gender-roles.

    There’s certainly a tragic underpinning of Freud’s theory with the drives. It seems as if human beings, in exchange for culture and society, are paying the price of psychological struggles. No other animal is so conflicted vis-a-vis normal bodily functions (sleep, food, sex). There’s something so tragic that the very sources of experience from which we derive the most pleasure are where we we also often suffer the greatest psychological pain.

Comments are closed.