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Sigmund Freuds Evolving Concept Of Repetition Compulsion English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5626 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This paper is the result of my efforts to comprehend Sigmund Freud’s evolving concept of “repetition compulsion” and “death drive” and their influence on his psychology of religion. My impression of going through some material on Freud is that one can never really understand the real sense of his words without having a thorough reading of most of his literature. Although with limited grasp of his literature, I strongly feel that he leads us through inconsistencies and historical diversions, giving us a rather complicated road map to follow. He doesn’t shy away from accepting challenges and some of the better evolved positions in his search. The basic question howsoever for Freud is; not what is the truth? But what is the origin? how serviceable is an idea or an entity? Freud’s development of the psychology of religion seems to me very much in line with the development of his psychoanalytical discoveries; among them namely the repetition compulsion and subsequent philosophical concept of death drive, are the subject of my search. However it is quite surprising, why Freud never mentions about death drive in “The Future of an Illusion’ in 1927, though he came across the idea of death drive visibly in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in 1920. “Freud’s thesis on the death drive is one of the most original theories in the history of ideas that potentially provides a viable explanation to the conundrums that beset the problems of human civilization, subjective suffering, collective aggressivity, and self-destructiveness” (Mills 2006, 373). The most obvious interaction of Freud’s psychological investigation in his psychology of religion is that of the “return of the repressed” and the conflict between the life drive and death drive. The Freudian construct seems that there was a historical killing, followed by the experience of ambivalence which is being repeated through every new formation of religion. “Oedipus Complex” and the “Totem Myth” are the foundations for such a construct. Freud’s investigation is into the origin of the “obsessive neurosis” of religion which is culminating in the writing of “Moses and Monotheism”. During these investigations Freud brings to light some core issues of religion; namely, sin, guilt, evil, etc. Some suggest that to deal with the religious development Freud makes use of the “Hermeneutic of Suspicion” as his guiding approach. “The psychological method of The Future of an Illusion is an application of the well-tried “hermeneutics of suspicion” that yields illuminating results when applied to phenomena such as dreams, parapraxes, and obsessive actions” (Dicenso 1991, 170). The paper examines the historical progression of the idea of repetition compulsion leading to a firm conviction on the philosophical thought of death drive, which can never be reversed through psychoanalysis. The parallel examination is of the progression of psychology of religion from The Future of an Illusion to Moses and Monotheism. The remaining text deals with various dynamics of religion which is influenced by the very concept of repetition compulsion and the drives.

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Doing a somewhat historical overview of the concept of Repetition Compulsion will help us to mark the development in Freud’s thought. The author Gregory Johnson says “Without using the name, Freud recognized and described the repetition compulsion as early as the Studies on Hysteria with Breuer. In a footnote in the “Frau Emmy von N.” case Freud notes that Emmy’s hysterical pattern had been present for many years. Her “performance” had been compulsively repeated with many doctors besides Freud” (Johnson n. d . ). In his paper on “Jokes and the Unconscious” Freud observed that young children like to repeat words when they are learning to talk. They discover that there is a relationship between pleasure and constancy. “In doing so they come across pleasurable effects, which arise from a repetition of what is similar, a rediscovery of what is familiar, similarity of sound, etc., and which are to be explained as unsuspected economies in psychical expenditure”(Freud SE.VIII, 128).

Sigmund Freud’s use of the concept was articulated…for the first time, in the article of 1914, Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten (‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through. Here he noted how the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, he acts it out, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it….For instance, “the patient does not say that he remembers that he used to be defiant and critical toward his parent’s authority; instead, he behaves in that way to the doctor” (Johnson n. d .). In “Observations on Transference Love”, Freud cautions against giving into and returning the love of a patient. If the analyst does so the patient “would have succeeded in acting out, in repeating in real life, what she ought only to have remembered” (SE: Vol. XII, 1911-1913).

In his paper “The Sense of Symptoms” (SE: Vol. XVI, 1916-1917) Freud lays more groundwork for his eventual philosophical speculation. He notes that most symptoms are connected with a patient’s past experience. There is normally some “past situation in which the idea was justified and the action served a purpose.” This is true of individual symptoms. The connection is usually with early childhood experience, but some can come from later adult experience. But there is also a tendency to repeat not just individual, but typical symptoms. These typical symptoms, which are common to great numbers of patients, tend “to resist any easy historical derivation.” (p. 270) “It remains possible that the typical symptoms may go back to an experience which is itself typical– common to all human beings” (p. 271). Here there is a foreshadowing of a discussion of the universal experience of death, and the death instinct Freud would eventually posit. 

The relation of the repetition compulsion to the pleasure principle, instincts, and the sense of the demonic is broached in Freud’s paper “The Uncanny.” Here he argues that the close connection in linguistic usage between das Heimliche (homely) and its opposite das Unheimliche (unhomely or uncanny) is because “the uncanny proceeds from (a repetition of) something familiar which has been repressed” (Freud SE. XVII, 236).  In literature also, it is this “factor of the repetition of the same thing” (features, character traits, crimes, numbers, etc.) that evokes the sense of the uncanny. In a summary statement Freud notes, “It is possible to recognize the dominance in the unconscious mind of a ‘compulsion to repeat’ proceeding from the instinctual impulses and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts–a compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle…” (Freud SE.XVII, 238).

He explored the repetition compulsion further in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, describing four aspects of repetitive behaviour, all of which seemed odd to him from the point of view of the mind’s quest for pleasure/avoidance of un-pleasure. The first was the way “dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident” rather than, for example, “showing the patient pictures from his healthy past” (Freud 1961, 282). The second came from children’s play. Freud reported observing a child throw his favourite toy from his crib, become upset at the loss, then reel the toy back in, only to repeat this action (Literary Encyclopaedia). Freud theorized that the child was attempting to master the sensation of loss “in allowing his mother to go away without protesting”, but asked in puzzlement “How then does his repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with the pleasure principle?” The third was the way (noted in 1914) that the patient, exploring in therapy a repressed past, “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of…remembering it as something belonging to the past….the compulsion to repeat the events of his childhood in the transference evidently disregards the pleasure principle in every way” (Freud 1961, 288). The fourth was the so-called “destiny neurosis”, manifested in ‘the life-histories of men and women…as an essential character-trait which remains always the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experience(Freud 1961, 293). No lessons are learned from instinctually derived behaviours that continually lead to painful, unsatisfying results. This is even more remarkable in supposedly passive cases such as a woman marrying three husbands in a row who end up needing nursing on their death-beds (Freud 1961, 308).

All such activities appeared to Freud to contradict the organism’s search for pleasure, and therefore “to justify the hypothesis of a compulsion to repeat – something that seems more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides”. Following this line of thought, he would come to stress that “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things” (Freud 1961, 308); and so to arrive eventually at his concept of the death drive. “If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons–becomes inorganic once again–then we shall be compelled to say that “the aim of all life is death” and, looking backwards, that “inanimate things existed before living ones”(Freud 1961,32). Freud’s paper “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920) marks the beginning of the last phase in the development of drive theory. Here he introduces the antagonism between sexual drive and death drive, understood as inertia: the tendency within organic matter to return to an earlier, less evolved, state (Freud 1990, 105). He finally avoids the postulation of a unified nature of the drive by introducing another dualism, one between Eros and Thanatos. Repetition compulsion and the generally conservative nature of the drive are the first clinical clues for the existence of an independent death drive. The question why the death-drive does not simply lead towards a suicidal tendency is resolved with the argument that a portion of it gets deflected under the influence of the libido, turns against the external world and manifests itself as aggression. Both types of drive occur only in a mixture.

The review of the concept of repetition compulsion in the writings of Freud doesn’t end here. However I feel for the purpose of knowing the development of the concept as something which could be worked out in transference in therapy to a point of accepting it as constantly part of the human psyche, the conservative nature of instincts, a picture of the way life is. “This essentially conservative character of instincts is exemplified by the phenomena of the compulsion to repeat. The picture which life presents to us is the result of the concurrent and mutually opposing action of Eros and the death instinct. It remains to be seen whether this construction will turn out to be serviceable . . ..it goes far beyond psychoanalysis” (Freud, SE. XX, 57).


In the development of Freud’s thought about religion there is a decisive shift from The Future of an Illusion (1927), where he categorically rejects religion as an illusion, to his attempt to explain the emergence of the idea of a monotheistic God in Moses and Monotheism (1939). During this period of his life, he devoted considerable effort to the attempt to analyze religion and culture from a psychoanalytic point of view. Convinced of the truth of his psychoanalytic discoveries, he proceeds to test and apply them to questions that are of central concern to the philosophers and theologians in the Western World. As a late representative of Enlightenment thinking, Freud joined the issue of the relation between science and religion most directly in his long drawn out debate with Oskar Pfister (1873-1956), a Swiss Lutheran pastor and his devoted friend of many years(Pfister,Wikipedia). The debate came to a head in Freud’s writing of The Future of an Illusion (1927). Pfister took up the challenge and responded in a lengthy article, “The Illusion of the Future” (1928). The inter-change was, in fact, the high point of a dialogue contained in letters exchanged over more than thirty years. The two men differed radically in their assessment of and attitudes toward religious experience and belief. Freud viewed religious beliefs as forms of illusion and religious experience and practice as universal forms of “obsessional neurosis”. Freud continually presented himself to Pfister as an unbeliever, a “godless Jew”(Pfister,Wikipedia). Yet, Freud clearly envied the power of religion: “As for the possibility of sublimation to religion, therapeutically I can only envy you. But the beauty of religion certainly does not belong to psychoanalysis. It is natural, at this point in therapy, our ways should part and so it can remain” (Pfister 1928, 170).

Freud had begun a correspondence in 1923 with the Nobel Prize winning novelist, poet, and scholar of Indian mysticism, Romain Rolland, whom he admired for his writing. It was Rolland who suggested Freud to consider the “Oceanic Feeling”. However Freud had a rather disinterested look into that. “Freud dismissed Pfister’s gentle arguments concerning his unfortunate and limited view of religious experience. He pathologized Rolland’s concept of an “oceanic feeling,” based on his own spiritual experience, interpreting it as seeking “something like the restoration of limitless narcissism”(Simmonds 2006, 130).

In Future of an Illusion Freud still regards religion as a compulsive neurosis something which we can outgrow. Subsequently, his position is sharply critical towards religion, yet optimistic about the possibility to overcome it (Freud SE. XXI, 42). Freud states clearly what he meant through the analogy of the human child which needs to go through the process of neurosis for growth, and if the neurosis is not naturally overcome it can be overcome through psychoanalysis. He further says, “Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus complex, out of the relation to the father. If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth…”(Freud SE. XXI).The vision of an overcoming of religion that Freud proposes here implies that there is a dichotomy of religion and reason. Once Freud integrates the discovery of death drive; from “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920) his analysis of religion as a compulsive neurosis that can be overcome shifts to the view of religion as a phenomenon similar to a psychotic process. Freud had lived through the savagery of World War I, lost his daughter Sophie to influenza the same year he published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and was in the early stages of cancer of the palate, which was formally diagnosed three years later, the same year when he formally classified his dual drive theory(Mills 2006, 380) Freud never used the term “death instinct” to refer to the organism’s innate propensity for destruction; rather, he called it Todestrieb, which is more accurately translated as the “death drive”(Mills 2006, 375). As if he is not satisfied with his analysis of religion as an illusion, Freud continues to think about the question. The next essay he produces widens the analysis of religion to the analysis of culture and takes the death drive into account. In “Discontent in Civilization” (1930) Freud focuses on the question of the origin of the guilt which seems to accompany our constitutive dependency and fragility. Gone is the optimism from “Future of an Illusion”, that religion could be superseded by a rational and scientific attitude. “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures” (Freud SE. XXI, 75) Freud’s acceptance of religion as a symptom is born from resignation, but it opens the possibility for a shift in his view of religion. He begins to realize that he might have underestimated the cultural value of religion, if the possibility to outgrow it doesn’t really exist. This also changes his analysis of religion as a compulsive neurosis. He admits that he did not consider the content and the sources of religious experience, but merely “the functioning of the symptom in the psychic economy and as a cultural system” (Freud SE. XXI).

The analysis and interpretation of religious phenomenon undertaken by Freud has been ever guided by the psychoanalytical discoveries; especially that of the repetition compulsion often presented as the return of the “repressed”. Freud draws attention to a basic characteristic of the development of religion in general i.e., the central importance of latency periods, leading to a return of that which has been repressed, in seeking to account for the peculiar intensity of religious feeling. Infantile feelings, he suggests, are far more intense and profound than their adult counterparts and it is religious experience alone that can produce their intensity again (Banks 1973, 420).

Encyclopaedia of Psychology, while speaking about Moses and Monotheism states, “Nevertheless confining Messianism to the Oedipal context is relegating it to social order-keeping-marking the revival of movements that clearly failed to eliminate exogenous stressors amount to little more than corporate repetition compulsion”(Adams n. d ., 614). The repetition of the violent deed (i.e., killing the primeval father) activates memory: The awakening, however, of the memory trace through a recent real repetition of the event is certainly of decisive importance. The murder of Moses was such a repetition and, later on, the supposed judicial murder of Christ, so that “these events move into the foreground as causative agents”(Freud SE.XXIII, 129).

Ambivalence: Helplessness, Certainty and Guilt

Sin and guilt may be are the most significant experiences of religion in Freud’s view. Freud’s search of this guilt ends up in the very process of repetition compulsion. Freud believed that human beings, and, for that matter, all living organisms, manifested two primary instincts-a life instinct and a death instinct; though the death instinct is often repressed into the unconscious in the case of human being. The life instinct, or the love instinct as it is commonly referred to (Eros), indicates a tendency for unification, while the death instinct corresponds to the propensity for destruction Freud believed to be inherent in analyzing organism. Clearly, the two tendencies indicate a conflict of interests, which, in turn, reflect an underlying ambivalence of feelings and thoughts Freud attributes to the “psychical structure of human beings”(Freud SE. XXI, 95) throughout his works, including those that predate Beyond The Pleasure Principle-the first work in which the life and death instincts are actually worked out. While Freud maintains that “we know nothing about the origin of this ambivalence” (Freud 1946, 273) Freud believed that, in effect, this taboo conscience originates from an ambivalence of feelings toward the father figure that reflect equally the individual’s love, and consequent guilt for having slain him, and the actual impulse to kill that prompted the slaughter to begin with (Musil, The Delusion of an Illusion). In Christianity, for example, the ambivalence is present in the Pauline notions of original sin and the propitiatory death of the son, as well as in his elevation to the status of the father in the meal commemorating his death (Banks 1973, 420)

Freud interprets the formation of religions in terms of their function in this conflict between nature and culture, or between the ego and the drive. Religions are remarkable compromise formations: they allow the human being to admit its extraordinary vulnerability and at the same time, to retain a sense of superiority in relation to the surrounding reality. The price for the compromise is the submission to an “illusion”. It is a fantasy that makes life tolerable despite the hardships, and it even negates death as the final end of human life (Freud SE. XXI, 18). The strength of the illusion is therefore reciprocal to the strength of the need. The question can be raised how does this conversion from the experience of helplessness to the believer’s certainty of an ultimate protection occur? The conversion of dependency into the feeling of protection repeats a childhood experience, namely the replacement of the real father with a fantasy product. Dependency turns into its opposite based on the (delusional) construction of a second, divine reality, which de-realizes the concrete materiality of human life. This psychological mastery of threatening natural occurrences is merely the reflection of an infantile prototype. In one’s childhood one fears one’s parents, especially one’s father. This terrifying helplessness arouses the need for protection and love. The father is seen as the one capable of giving protection and care. Hence, by submission and dependence on the father, one resolves the conflict and is assured of the care. This same wish for the father and his protection is the character of religion. “The hostile forces of nature are humanized, they are turned into paternal gods, for whom one longs and on whom one depends” (M. Yee Review).

Sin and Evil

Freud acknowledges that the idea of death drive has encountered the resistance of many of his followers. He speculates that the reason for the resistance is the difficulty in accepting that human nature might be aggressive to the point of being called “evil.” The introduction of the death drive has some fundamental implications not only for drive theory, but also for the psychoanalytic view of culture and religion. By assuming the existence of an independent death drive, Freud is now in a position to explain not only the fundamental corruptness that he observes in human nature, but also the development of the ego and of culture in general, as defences against these abysmal possibilities in the human soul(Braungardt n. d .). In Freud’s psychological theodicy, the death instinct absolves human beings of personal responsibility for evil, but it also makes them its permanent agents. It is not so much that Adam the ‘responsible individual’ has been excluded from the psychoanalytic garden, but his image has been transformed into the form which, in the Biblical myth, it only achieved after the fall. What in Christianity and Judaism is an episode in the drama of salvation is in Freud a destiny and end point (Humbert 1993). According to Freud, the Christian myth of original sin is not purely a work of the imagination, but is the distorted remnant of an historical event, the primal killing of the father. Religious and social history is punctuated by the repeated “recurrence” of this historical “primal scene” in events like the supposed killing of Moses, and the judicial execution of Jesus. Each outbreak of recurrence evokes a new attempt at defence and sublimation, which in turn gives rise to new religious formations. The celebrants of the Christian Eucharist are not only remembering their saviour, but also re-enacting the original crime of murder, dismemberment and cannibalism which the brothers of the primal horde inflicted on their primal father (M. Yee Review, 13).

Sin and Salvation

The Oedipus complex is the myth of human fallenness, while the horde myth is its projection in the form of an historical genesis. It is a myth of origins, not only of the sense of guilt, but of the primal ambivalence, the congenitally wicked desires of human nature. It is more than the ‘ demythologizing ‘ of original sin. It is rather a displacement and surreptitious return of primordial sin(repetition). Behind Oedipus stands Adam. Adam returns, but without the opportunity of salvation which once was the prospect opened up by his fall (Humbert 1993). The author Adam S. Miller speaks of sin and salvation when speaking about repetition compulsion. He says that sin is “the compulsion to repeat.” Or, perhaps better, the necessity of repetition experienced as a compulsion. Conversely, then, salvation involves freedom from this compulsion to repeat. Salvation depends on being free from the compulsion to repeat, but it doesn’t mean being free from the necessity of repetition. Or, salvation depends on coming to relate non-compulsively to the necessity of the repetition that nonetheless and unavoidably constitutes the stuff of life. According to him Compulsion is the unavoidable passivity involved in every experience and Repetition is the unavoidable inadequacy of every experience. As a disposition sinfulness is a rejection of our passivity and inadequacy. It is a rebellion against the compulsion of experience and a disavowal of its repetition. Classically, this is why sin is defined as wanting to be God (S. Miller 2010). Classically, God is the one who is never passive, never compelled, never inadequate, always complete, and thus never in need of repetition (S. Miller 2010).

The Truth of Religion

Freud believed, more so towards the end of his life, that there is a truth in religion: not the “material truth”, or the truth of the believers, but the “historical truth”, the truth that “exists” in the unconscious as a repressed memory and manifests itself in repetition (Braungardt n.d.). This implies, however, that for him, the murder of the primal father really happened – there must have been a corpse at some time. The parricide is forgotten (repressed), and religion is the symptom formation that preserves the memory of it in an encoded form. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the same “truth” (understood as “historical” truth), but differ in their respective symptom formations. “consequently monotheism is repression created and reinforced by these two memories,(a memory arising from mankind’s each individual’s guilty relation to his own father, and a memory arising from mankind’s remorse for the primal crime, the murder of the father by the primal horde) its principal objective being to affect a reconciliation with the offended father”(Palmer 1997, 45). In “Moses and Monotheism”, he detects the return of the repressed (i.e. the phylogenetic and unconscious repetition of the primal scene throughout the generations) in what he calls the “historical truth” (historische Wahrheit) of religion (Mack 2006)

. The truth question in Freud is different in its content; it is not very much, what is truth value of the religious belief? Rather, a bitter wondering on why religion is surviving so long? “The guiding question for Freud-as for the other major figures in the systematic critique of religion, Marx and Nietzsche-is not “Are religious beliefs true?”; (a question which is presumed to have been resolved by the rationalist critiques of the eighteenth century) but, rather, “How did religion arise?” and, still more importantly, “Why does it persist?” (R.Elder 1995, 349).


Freud conceives religious history, therefore, as an unending cycle, consisting of the following stages: return of the repressed, defence, the establishment of a religious delusion, the decay of the delusion and then again a repeated return, defence and the establishment of a new religious delusion. The tragedy of this cycle of inherited sin is continued into the present time (Humbert 1993). Freud never doubted that religious institutions offered solutions to typical neurotic conflicts and that they did so by guaranteeing an essentially narcissistic feeling of wholeness. On the contrary, it was precisely their ability to gratify fundamental human wishes which made them antithetical to the ego’s toleration of real suffering and which prevented, therefore, real solutions to human misery. The ego is guilty not because it engages in fantasy (religion) but because it does so at the cost of sacrificing part of its hard won sovereignty, its ability to confront the world of sickness, misfortune, need and death(P. Gay n.d., 540).

One keeps wondering the way the attempts of Freud have earned the pivotal place in the history of the psychology of religion. Freud has analogically told what many in his time were aware of and even said. However Freudian analogies were so strong that even today we can’t speak and understand religion without them. The concept of repetition compulsion remains till date an unanswered puzzle to the human soul. As Freud comes to a rather resignation to the point that we can’t but live with these symptom formations(religion), it is also clear that he has no conclusive idea on what urge repeatedly takes one back into the earlier state of being, thus to death. The very internal corruptness of being, evil, has become the undividable part of human person. Though it was an answer for why human being behaves with evil intention and cause destruction? it in someway shows how human person is intrinsically evil? which is quite difficult to be incorporated into the religious psyche of humanity. Thus one should say that the exposition of religion by Freud poses more questions than answers for the coming generations to puzzle with.


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