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How ideas get filtered through public consciousness will never cease to amaze me. Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle serves as a great example of how this can work. Freud writes a book that works at revising, if not completely correcting, the theoretical aspects of his psychology, specifically related to the relationships between ego, instinct, pleasure, life, and death. I might even call it slightly hesitant in its claims, and I don’t see anywhere in it that Freud takes an authoritative stance on these topics. It is meant to be, like much good science, the groundwork for future study.

The common cultural understanding, though, for people who haven’t read Freud, is that this is the book that argues for the death drive. The belief is always about the death drive, notably singular, and how this counteracts the pleasure principle. And yet, this is not what we find in Freud’s actual text. He does, in fact, introduce the idea of death instincts, certain tendencies toward a natural, organic death, that orient us with a certain…biological teleology. But these arguments are far from definitive, and far from being the whole content of the book. Much of Freud’s writing, here, is deeply speculative, and he devotes a significant amount of time showing how one thing can look like what would seemingly be its opposite: such as a death instinct that fights against death by external causes, thus looking like a survival instinct, so that it can properly reach its natural end. Suffice to say, in any case, that a famous book, as it exists in Jung’s collective unconscious (if it does), is always the sum of its text with the commentaries and adaptations that have followed it. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is “the death drive book,” insofar as we have made it so, not so much because Freud wrote it that way.

As for the ideas themselves, I won’t get into the gritty details. I didn’t read the book in that mode, anyway. I’ll simply say that Freud had a captivating mind, and as much in this text as in others. I particularly enjoyed his speculations on the isolated “vesicle,” developing and adapting to a world of stimuli, both within and without. At points I felt almost queasy, and that is a good thing. This translation by James Strachey, also, one of the accepted standards, appears good, even if I’m sure there are newer and, perhaps, more accurate translations available today. Altogether, I’m pleased to have finally had a chance to acquaint myself with this particular volume from Doctor Freud.

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