Freud was born in Freiberg in Mähren, in what is now Czechoslovakia. His intellectual gifts were apparent early on, and at 17, he entered the University of Vienna to study medicine. He published his first academic paper at 20 on neurology. In 1885, while studying with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, Freud began to perceive that mental illness might have entirely psychological origins apart from organic causes. These studies gave way to an interest in psychology, and in 1895, he co-published Studies in Hysteria with the physician Josef Breuer; hysteria, he believed, was the result of repressed desires. This work also introduced Freud’s notion of free association, a technique through which the psychoanalyst may uncover the hidden workings of the unconscious by allowing the patient to freely associate “random” thoughts in his or her mind. Perhaps Freud’s best known work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), analyzed the complexly symbolic and frequently sexually oriented operations underlying the process of dreaming. A controversial study of 1905, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, outlined his theories of infantile sexuality and the stages of human psychological and sexual development.
After initial ostracism by the Viennese medical community, the first International Psychoanalytical Congress of 1908 marked the beginning and recognition of the analytical movement in psychology. Freud’s many theories—including the Oedipus complex, the tripartite structure of the mind (ego, id, superego), as well as his speculations on the psychoanalytical aspects of myth, religion, and culture—underwent revision throughout his long life. His legacy includes the concepts of repression, defense mechanisms, “Freudian slips,” projection, and many others. His deterministic, anti-rational, and, some would say, pessimistic views of the importance of unconscious drives and instincts in human conduct radically altered the way people viewed the world and themselves. Despite a history of criticism and attempts to declare him obsolete, Freudian and neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory is still in use by practitioners worldwide, and it continues to influence such diverse fields as history, art, and sociology.
The selections presented here outline Freud’s views on suicide. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud argues for an unconscious drive for suicide and illustrates the human tendency to view self-inflicted injuries as unintentional. Indeed, according to Freudian death-instinct theory, suicide is the prototypal death. Contributions to a Discussion on Suicide (1910) contains Freud’s speculations on the causes of suicide in secondary schools. In Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924), Freud discusses how the dynamics among internal psychological forces can lead to self-destruction or punishment. By using a case study in The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920), Freud argues that suicide stems from infantile fantasies. He does not, however, discuss suicide in the circumstances of painful and ultimately terminal illness, as in his own case.
In 1923, Freud was diagnosed with cancer of the palate. The growth was removed but recurred, and during the 16 years between diagnosis and death, he underwent over 30 operations, as well as repeated fittings, cleanings, and refittings of a prosthesis for his jaw. He retrained himself to speak, but his voice never recovered its clarity. When the Nazis came to power, he considered exile, but resisted it until the occupation of Vienna in spring l938. During that spring, over 500 Austrian Jews committed suicide, but Freud rejected the idea even when it was raised by his daughter Anna. In June 1938, he fled to London, where he had further surgery, but by August, the pain was severe and the smell from his ulcerated cancer so foul, it was reported, that his pet dog would cringe from him. Freud had long had an agreement with his physician Max Schur, also in exile in London, that Schur would help him end his life when the cancer had progressed too far, and on September 21, 1939, Schur injected Freud with morphine, followed by further injections the following day; Freud died on September 23.
Sigmund Freud, Ch. 8: “Erroneously Carried Out Actions.” (1901), from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, ed. and tr. A. A. Brill (1914). Online at , pp. 198-206.
“Contributions to a Discussion on Suicide,” Vol. 11, 1957, pp. 231-32; “Mourning and Melancholia,” Vol. 14, 1957, pp. 250-52; “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” Vol. 18, 1955, pp. 160-163; “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” Vol. 19, 1961, pp. 168-70, all from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and tr. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-74).
from PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY LIFE
It is known that in the more serious cases of psychoneuroses one sometimes finds self-mutilations as symptoms of the disease. That the psychic conflict may end in suicide can never be excluded in these cases. Thus, I know from experience, which some day I shall support with convincing examples, that many apparently accidental injuries happening to such patients are really self-inflicted. This is brought about by the fact that there is a constantly lurking tendency to self-punishment, usually expressing itself in self-reproach, or contributing to the formation of a symptom, which skillfully makes use of an external situation. The required external situation my accidentally present itself or the punishment tendency may assist it until the way is open for the desired injurious effect.
Such occurrences are by no means rare even in cases of moderate severity, and they betray the portions of unconscious intention through a series of special features—for example, through the striking presence of mind which the patients show in the pretended accidents:
One of my boys, whose vivacious temperament was wont to put difficulties in the management of nursing him in his illness, had a fit of anger one morning because he was ordered to remain in bed during the forenoon, and threatened to kill himself: a way out suggested to him by the newspapers. In the evening, he showed me a swelling on the side of his chest which was the result of bumping against the door knob. To my ironical question why he did it, and what he meant by it, the eleven-year-old child explained, “That was my attempt at suicide which I threatened this morning.” However, I do not believe that my views on self-inflicted wounds were accessible to my children at that time.
Whoever believes in the occurrence of semi-intentional self-inflicted injury—if this awkward expression be permitted—will become prepared to accept through it the fact that aside from conscious intentional suicide, there also exists semi-intentional annihilation—with unconscious intention—which is capable of aptly utilizing a threat against life and masking it as a casual mishap. Such mechanisms are by no means rare. For the tendency to self-destruction exists to a certain degree in many more persons than in those who bring it to completion. Self-inflicted injuries are, as a rule, a compromise between this impulse and the forces working against it, and even where it really comes to suicide, the inclination has existed for a long time with less strength or as an unconscious and repressed tendency.
Even suicide consciously committed chooses its time, means and opportunity; it is quite natural that unconscious suicide should wait for a motive to take upon itself one part of the causation and thus free it from its oppression by taking up the defensive forces of the person. These are in no way idle discussions which I here bring up; more than one case of apparently accidental misfortune has become known to me whose surrounding circumstances justified the suspicion of suicide.
For example, during an officers’ horse-race one of the riders fell from his horse and was so seriously injured that a few days later he succumbed to his injuries. His behavior after regaining consciousness was remarkable in more than one way, and his conduct previous to the accident was still more remarkable. He had been greatly depressed by the death of his beloved mother, had crying spells in the society of his comrades, and to his trusted friend had spoken of the taedium vitae. He had wished to quit the service in order to take part in a war in Africa which had no interest for him. Formerly a keen rider, he had later evaded riding whenever possible. Finally, before the horse-race, from which he could not withdraw, he expressed a sad foreboding; in the light of our conception, it is not surprising that his premonition came true. It may be contended that it is quite comprehensible without any further cause that a person in such a state of nervous depression cannot manage a horse as well as on normal days. I quite agree with that, only I should like to look for the mechanism of this motor inhibition through “nervousness” in the intention of self-destruction here emphasized.
Another analysis of an apparently accidental self-inflicted wound, detailed to me by an observer, recalls the saying, “He who digs a pit for others falls in himself.”
from CONTRIBUTIONS TO A DISCUSSION ON SUICIDE
I. Introductory Remarks
Gentlemen,—You have all listened with much satisfaction to the plea put forward by an educationalist who will not allow an unjustified charge to be levelled against the institution that is so dear to him. But I know that in any case you were not inclined to give easy credence to the accusation that schools drive their pupils to suicide. Do not let us be carried too far, however, by our sympathy with the party which has been unjustly treated in this instance. Not all the arguments put forward by the opener of the discussion seem to me to hold water. If it is the case that youthful suicide occurs not only among pupils in secondary schools but also among apprentices and others, this fact does not acquit the secondary schools; it must perhaps be interpreted as meaning that as regards its pupils the secondary school takes the place of the traumas with which other adolescents meet in other walks of life. But a secondary school should achieve more than not driving its pupils to suicide. It should give them a desire to live and should offer them support and backing at a time of life at which the conditions of their development compel them to relax their ties with their parental home and their family. It seems to me indisputable that schools fail in this, and in many respects fall short of their duty of providing a substitute for the family and of arousing interest in life in the world outside. This is not a suitable occasion for a criticism of secondary schools in their present shape; but perhaps I may emphasize a single point. The school must never forget that it has to deal with immature individuals who cannot be denied a right to linger at certain stages of development and even at certain disagreeable ones. The school must not take on itself the inexorable character of life: it must not seek to be more than a game of life.
II. Concluding Remarks
Gentlemen,—I have an impression that, in spite of all the valuable material that has been brought before us in this discussion, we have not reached a decision on the problem that interests us. We were anxious above all to know how it becomes possible for the extraordinarily powerful life instinct to be overcome: whether this can only come about with the help of a disappointed libido or whether the ego can renounce its self-preservation for its own egoistic motives. It may be that we have failed to answer this psychological question because we have no adequate means of approaching it. We can, I think, only take as our starting-point the condition of melancholia, which is so familiar to us clinically, and a comparison between it and the affect of mourning. The affective processes in melancholia, however, and the vicissitudes undergone by the libido in that condition, are totally unknown to us. Nor have we arrived at a psycho-analytic understanding of the chronic affect of mourning. Let us suspend our judgement till experience has solved this problem.
from MOURNING AND MELANCHOLIA
Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism. It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning. The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open. Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it. These obsessional states of depression following upon death of a loved person show us what the conflict due to ambivalence can achieve by itself when there is no regressive drawing-in of libido as well. In melancholia, the occasions which give rise to the illness extend for the most part beyond the clear case of a loss by death, and include all those situations of being slighted, neglected or disappointed, which can import opposed feelings of love and hate into the relationship or reinforce an already existing ambivalence. This conflict due to ambivalence, which sometimes arises more from real experiences, sometimes more from constitutional factors, must not be overlooked among the preconditions of melancholia. If the love for the object—a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up—takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering. The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self in the ways we have been discussing. In both disorders the patients usually still succeed, by the circuitous path of self punishment, in taking revenge on the original object and in tormenting their loved one through their illness, having resorted to it in order to avoid the need to express their hostility to him openly. After all, the person who has occasioned the patient’s emotional disorder, and on whom his illness is centred, is usually to be found in his immediate environment. The melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism, which is nearer to that conflict.
It is this sadism alone that solves the riddle of the tendency to suicide which makes melancholia so interesting—and so dangerous. So immense is the ego’s self-love, which we have come to recognize as the primal state from which instinctual life proceeds, and so vast is the amount of narcissistic libido which we see liberated in the fear that emerges at a threat to life, that we cannot conceive how that ego can consent to its own destruction. We have long known, it is true, that no neurotic harbours thoughts of suicide which he has not turned back upon himself from murderous impulses against others, but we have never been able to explain what interplay of forces can carry such a purpose through to execution. The analysis of melancholia now shows that the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis, it can treat itself as an object—if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which relates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. Thus in regression from narcissistic object-choice the object has, it is true, been got rid of, but it has nevertheless proved more powerful than the ego itself. In the two opposed situations of being most intensely in love and of suicide the ego is overwhelmed by the object, though in totally different ways.
from THE PSYCHOGENESIS OF A CASE OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN A WOMAN
We are led into quite another realm of explanation by the analysis of the attempt at suicide, which I must regard as seriously intended, and which, incidentally, considerably improved her position both with her parents and with the lady she loved. She went for a walk with her one day in a part of the town and at an hour at which she was not unlikely to meet her father on his way from his office. So it turned out. Her father passed them in the street and cast a furious look at her and her companion, about whom he had by that time come to know. A few moments later she flung herself into the railway cutting. The explanation she gave of the immediate reasons determining her decision sounded quite plausible. She had confessed to the lady that the man who had given them such an irate glance was her father, and that he had absolutely forbidden their friendship. The lady became incensed at this and ordered the girl to leave her then and there, and never again to wait for her or to address her—the affair must now come to an end. In her despair at having thus lost her loved one for ever, she wanted to put an end to herself. The analysis, however, was able to disclose another and deeper interpretation behind the one she gave, which was confirmed by the evidence of her own dreams. The attempted suicide was, as might have been expected, determined by two other motives besides the one she gave: it was the fulfilment of a punishment (self-punishment), and the fulfilment of a wish. As the latter it meant the attainment of the very wish which, when frustrated, had driven her into homosexuality—namely, the wish to have a child by her father, for now she ‘fell’ through her father’s fault. The fact that at that moment the lady had spoken in just the same terms as her father, and had uttered the same prohibition, forms the connecting link between this deep interpretation and the superficial one of which the girl herself was conscious. From the point of view of self-punishment the girl’s action shows us that she had developed in her unconscious strong death-wishes against one or other of her parents—perhaps against her father, out of revenge for impeding her love, but more probably against her mother too, when she was pregnant with the little brother. For analysis has explained the enigma of suicide in the following way: probably no one finds the mental energy required to kill himself unless, in the first place, in doing so he is at the same time killing an object with whom he has identified himself, and, in the second place, is turning against himself a death-wish which had been directed against someone else. Nor need the regular discovery of these unconscious death-wishes in those who have attempted suicide surprise us (any more than it ought to make us think that it confirms our deductions), since the unconscious of all human beings is full enough of such death-wishes, even against those they love. Since the girl identified herself with her mother, who should have died at the birth of the child denied to herself, this punishment-fulfilment itself was once again a wish-fulfilment. Finally, the discovery that several quite different motives, all of great strength, must have co-operated to make such a deed possible is only in accordance with what we should expect.
from THE ECONOMIC PROBLEM OF MASOCHISM
After these preliminaries we can return to our consideration of moral masochism. We have said that, by their behaviour during treatment and in life, the individuals in question give an impression of being morally inhibited to an excessive degree, of being under the domination of an especially sensitive conscience, although they are not conscious of any of this ultra-morality. On closer inspection, we can see the difference there is between an unconscious extension of morality of this kind and moral masochism. In the former, the accent falls on the heightened sadism of the super-ego to which the ego submits; in the latter, it falls on the ego’s own masochism which seeks punishment, whether from the super-ego or from the parental powers outside. We may be forgiven for having confused the two to begin with; for in both cases it is a question of a relationship between the ego and the super-ego (or powers that are equivalent to it), and in both cases what is involved is a need which is satisfied by punishment and suffering. It can hardly be an insignificant detail, then, that the sadism of the super-ego becomes for the most part glaringly conscious, whereas the masochistic trend of the ego remains as a rule concealed from the subject and has to be inferred from his behaviour.
The fact that moral masochism is unconscious leads us to an obvious clue. We were able to translate the expression ‘unconscious sense of guilt’ as meaning a need for punishment at the hands of a parental power. We now know that the wish, which so frequently appears in phantasies, to be beaten by the father stands very close to the other wish, to have a passive (feminine) sexual relation to him and is only a regressive distortion of it. If we insert this explanation into the content of moral masochism, its hidden meaning becomes clear to us. Conscience and morality have arisen through the overcoming, the desexualization, of the Oedipus complex; but through moral masochism morality becomes sexualized once more, the Oedipus complex is revived and the way is opened for a regression from morality to the Oedipus complex. This is to the advantage neither of morality nor of the person concerned. An individual may, it is true, have preserved the whole or some measure of ethical sense alongside of his masochism; but, alternatively, a large part of his conscience may have vanished into his masochism. Again, masochism creates a temptation to perform ‘sinful’ actions, which may then be expiated by the reproaches of the sadistic conscience (as is exemplified in so many Russian character-types) or by chastisement from the great parental power of Destiny. In order to provoke punishment from this last representative of the parents, the masochist must do what is inexpedient, must act against his own interests, must ruin the prospects which open out to him in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy his own real existence.
The turning back of sadism against the self regularly occurs where a cultural suppression of the instincts holds back a large part of the subject’s destructive instinctual components from being exercised in life. We may suppose that this portion of the destructive instinct which has retreated appears in the ego as an intensification of masochism. The phenomena of conscience, however, lead us to infer that the destructiveness which returns from the external world is also taken up by the super-ego, without any such transformation, and increases its sadism against the ego. The sadism of the super-ego and the masochism of the ego supplement each other and unite to produce the same effects. It is only in this way, I think, that we can understand how the suppression of an instinct can – frequently or quite generally – result in a sense of guilt and how a person’s conscience becomes more severe and more sensitive the more he refrains from aggression against others. One might expect that if a man knows that he is in the habit of avoiding the commission of acts of aggression that are undesirable from a cultural standpoint he will for that reason have a good conscience and will watch over his ego less suspiciously. The situation is usually presented as though ethical requirements were the primary thing and the renunciation of instinct followed from them. This leaves the origin of the ethical sense unexplained. Actually, it seems to be the other way about. The first instinctual renunciation is enforced by external powers, and it is only this which creates the ethical sense, which expresses itself in conscience and demands a further renunciation of instinct.
Thus moral masochism becomes a classical piece of evidence for the existence of fusion of instinct. Its danger lies in the fact that it originates from the death instinct and corresponds to the part of that instinct which has escaped being turned outwards as an instinct of destruction. But since, on the other hand, it has the significance of an erotic component, even the subject’s destruction of himself cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction.