After the deadly shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, earlier this month late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert momentarily struck a somber note. Like many, Colbert admitted his uncertainty about what to do in the face of the unremitting gun violence plaguing the U.S.: “Some say the answer is stricter gun laws; others say the answer is mental health care, that we need better treatment or just to keep the guns out of the hands of the insane. Maybe it’s both, I honestly don’t know.” He concluded, “But I do know that one of the definitions of insanity is changing nothing and then pretending that something will change.” For those of us who join Colbert in wishing for positive change in such matters, perhaps we might turn to a few late ruminations from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud for guidance and inspiration.
In the last two decades of his life Freud came to realize that other drives besides that of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain influence human behavior. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle he observed that frequently we are compelled to engage in repetitive actions that have little if anything to do with pleasure achievement or pain avoidance. One example of such a repetition compulsion is a veteran’s involuntary reliving of his or her traumatic war experiences in dreams and hallucinations. The human psyche seemingly requires this reliving, this repetition, but why?
In answer Freud proposed that the psyche has two drives which are more basic or primal than the pleasure-pain drive. He called these the Eros and death drives. The former is progressive and pro/creative. The latter is regressive and restorative. If Eros is the energy of life animation and preservation, the death drive longs to restore us to our original inanimate state free of tension, want, and worry.
In The Luxury of Afterwards Christine Downing writes that Eros might also be understood as the attachments which bind people together into communities and civilizations. As such, Eros provides an important counterweight to fear and aggression: “Freud sees civilization, communal existence, as dependent on libidinal attachments not just on the containment of aggression: society is based on love and our fear and hatred of others” (65). Eros-inspired love not only manifests as love for another human being or beings but more generally as the love for life in all its beauty and potential.
Downing stresses that though the Eros and death drives are in constant struggle with each other neither drive is always and only “good” or “bad.” While Eros takes us out of ourselves toward others, the future, and the new, the death drive turns us inward to considerations of our mortality, our vulnerability, our fears and desires, including our desire not to die. Awareness of how both drives operate in our lives, pulling us this way and that at any given moment, is essential to human health and well-being.
What is unhealthy is when either drive becomes literalized. We then identify Eros with the erotic, specifically sex, which is only one important aspect of human creativity and relationship. Reduced in this manner the fullness of Eros is repressed or denied. We become isolated from others and experience impaired social skills, low self-worth, and the devaluation of life.
Similarly, the death drive when literalized or repressed turns into destructive aggression. We become death incarnate and no longer fear the end of life out of a belief that the actions we take will immortalize us in the memory of others. Going out and with a bang become of equal importance.
The human struggle between the Eros and death drives is evident both in the tragic mass shootings in America and our response to these shootings. It is as if we are compelled to repeat this cultural nightmare over and again until we learn to engage these drives in more conscious ways. First the unconscious: one common denominator among many of the shooters is isolation. They are unable to relate to others and have become withdrawn into themselves. Also, like Christopher Harper Mercer in Oregon and Elliott Rodger in California they bemoan the fact that they have never had sex. In these and other instances repressed or frustrated Eros also takes the form of hatred toward the “other” to whom the shooter cannot relate the most, e.g., the other gender (Rodger), religion (Mercer), or race (Dylann Roof).
The excessive number of weapons used in the shootings, rounds fired, ammunition found, and victims killed or wounded are hallmarks of a repressed and unconsciously lived out death drive. Armed to the teeth and often wearing black, the color of death, these shooters have become killing machines. The deadly school stabbing in Sweden this month by a man wearing a Darth Vader mask may be the most recent example of this cross-cultural phenomenon.
Finally, the overwhelming desire to join earlier killers in infamy has already been alluded to. Whether committing suicide or dying at the hands of police, many if not most of these killers have become identified with the idea that in death their lives can reach a state of exalted completion, a nothingness of utmost importance. To them the best antidote to a meaningless life is a “meaningful” death.
The Eros and death drives are also at work in our collective response to these shootings. First and foremost a repressed Eros drive is most evident in our complete lack of a collective response. The libidinal attachments that connect us to each other and eventually to an idea of community and commonwealth are entirely absent. Individual talk show hosts, politicians and pundits weigh in on the best course of action but none is taken.
The discussion or debate that follows these tragedies, then, exemplifies this form of repression. Focus is placed on individual gun ownership rights and health privacy laws. As a result, the individual reigns supreme in public discourse completely isolated from any substantive lasting concern for the collective. On some level we seemingly prefer the comfort of life as we know it to the uncertainty of the change we both need and fear. Noted by Colbert, this insane desire not to change is a desire on the part of the death drive for a state of permanence or “changelessness.”
The way out of our nightmare toward collective healing is not to make so-called soft targets like schools and churches hard. It is not to replace Eros with the aggression of the death drive. Instead we would do well to proactively and not only re-actively engage Eros in our response to these tragedies. That is, rather than only coming together as a grieving community after these events we must learn to come together beforehand—way beforehand.
More and better parenting, sex education, multiculturalism, diversity, and special education classes all through the formative years may be a good place to start. Although such classes are no guarantee that extreme violence will be avoided in the future, the benefit of this education to individual and communal well-being is self-evident. Truly, in the soft targets that are our homes, schools, and religious institutions extra effort must be made to ensure that no child is left behind in anger or isolation.
The discussion of gun safety also needs to be re-framed in light of the Eros and death drives. To sacrifice some gun rights does not mean to sacrifice all gun rights. It does mean that our need to protect ourselves and those we love is tempered by a concern for the other person and the community of others in which we live. Put differently, homes, cities, and nations need protecting but they also need building. In his tribute to Sigmund Freud upon the latter’s passing poet W. H. Auden conveyed the active masculine energy contained within Eros when he described this drive as a “builder of cities.” What we seem to have forgotten is that Eros is a builder of nations, too.