Freudís Theory of Culture: Eros, Loss, and Politics

Abraham Drassinower

Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003, 208 pages


This is, above all, an intelligent book, densely, but for the most part lucidly and, at times, even elegantly written.  In my view it represents a significant contribution to Freud scholarship.

Drassinower strives to find a middle path in interpretation of Freudís contribution to social and political thought between the utopianism of Norman O. Brown and the Marcuse of Eros and Civilization (as distinct from, as he points out, the more realistic Marcuse of The Aesthetic Dimension), and tragic/stoic/pessimistic interpretations, such as that of Philip Rieff. 

Drassinower reminds us of Freudís commitment to both Eros and Thanatos.  Against the naÔve utopianism of those who one-sidedly celebrate Eros, he points to Freudís recognition of the inevitability of unhappiness, conflict, loss, death and mourning as inescapable features of the human condition.  But against the pessimism of those who one-sidedly focus on such negativities, he points to Freudís own recognition of the possibilities of Eros, especially an Eros based not upon the denial of death but its recognition and  conscious working-through or integration.

Without explicitly announcing the fact, what Drassinower is attempting to give us here is an existentialist Freudóthe Freud that a Heidegger, or an Otto Rank, or an Ernest Becker would approve.  This is a Freud who transcends both a one-sided biologism (the reductionistic naturalization and biologization of human nature that many perceive in the theory of the drives or triebe), and an equally one-sided environmentalism (the oversocialized or socially deterministic theories of personality or the self that are characteristic of much post-Freudian psychoanalytic thought), in favour of recognition of a uniquely human situation (something resembling Heideggerís Dasein) inextricably confronted by the realities of separation, loss and death.  Drassinower finds in Freudís concept of the death-drive an existentialist recognition of the reality of death and, in his concepts of separation anxiety and mourning, a basis for realistic hope. This is the hope that, instead of being denied and projected resulting in various forms of destructiveness toward both self and others, these existential realities may be faced, mourned and integrated.  In so taking death into ourselves, as it were, we would have less need to inflict it upon each other, thus circumventing, to some extent at least, the bleak, Hobbesian implications that Drassinower finds only apparent in Freudís Civilization and Its Discontents.

This is certainly the existentialist Freud that many of us wish were the real Freud.  There is little doubt that such a Freud actually exists here and there, on the margins of his complex and shifting theoretical achievement.  But whether such themes are central in Freud, whether Drassinower has uncovered the real Freud, or whether, instead, he has produced yet another creative misreading that justifies, on the basis of Freudís own texts, the authorís preferred existentialist understanding, is another question altogether.

From a strictly scholarly point of view, is it legitimate to interpret Freudís death-drive as an existentialist recognition of our being-towards-death when Freud himself, product as he was of the Helmholtz school of physicalistic physiology (positivism, materialism and reductionism), mostly wrote of the death-drive as a biologically-based ďprimary masochism,Ē a striving of the organism towards an inorganic state?

Whereas much Freud scholarship in the field of social and political thought has suffered from a merely scholastic familiarity with psychoanalysis, Drassinower possesses the sort of sophisticated understanding (knowledge of as distinct from mere knowledge about) the field that generally only comes from direct experience of the analytic process.  If psychoanalytic scholarship has sometimes served as a defense against psychoanalytic experience, this is certainly not the case here.  Drassinowerís systematic deconstruction of one-sided interpretations, his grasp of the dialectical nature of Freudian thinking (both Eros and  Thanatos) is admirable.  If the author had announced that his existentialist Freud is a Freud on the margins of the Freud we mostly have, readers such as myself could entirely and enthusiastically agree.

Donald L. Carveth

Glendon College

York University



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