Friday, July 23, 2010

Thanatos, Schadenfreude and the Self-destructive and Dark Side of the Mind

Eros and Thanatos in loving embrace
According to Freud, our life is played out in two different, opposing forces. One of them, Eros, is the drive for sex, love, and self-preservation, whereas the other is known as Thanatos, the drive for death and self-destruction. It is the yin and yang of motivations and urges. Put simply, Eros wants us to live and struggle through and with pain and suffering; Thanatos prefers to end it all with death, the equalizer, the dark force, the state of constant peace, calm, and rest.

There are many people who deny they have a dark side and deem themselves as thoroughly good. As a result, they often close up to all that could pose a threat to their (false) sense of security; they are paranoid about anything that might trigger “sinful” and “harmful” thoughts within them and strictly avoid sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

Yet the dark side within is really part of human nature; we cannot deny its existence, nor fight against it through vicious attacks; all we can do is accept and embrace it, so it doesn't creep up and hide behind our thoughts and make us do horrendous things.

The healthy person does not ignore his or her dark side and tries to keep track of its movements by shining a large searchlight on the dark side's plans and motivations, so as not to be caught red-handed and unawares.

The line between sanity and insanity may be much thinner than we may suppose. Mostly, it may be carried out in the restricted area of our subconscious. The neurotic is obsessed with their thoughts and actions; the psychotic is losing - or has just lost - control of the flow of thoughts and actions, while the psychopath is spontaneously acting out violence and deriving pleasure from sadistic acts.

Schadenfreude, a milder expression of our dark nature, is a German term that best describes taking pleasure in other people's sufferings. Of course, it ranges in intensity and gravity, but the main idea behind this is the fact that the misfortune is funny and enjoyable because it is not happening to me.

We may not be the agent or cause of other people's suffering, yet we still take delight in it. This explains the popularity of shows like “America's Funniest Videos” where falls or hits in the groins are met with roaring laughter. In these cases, we are feeding our dark nature some snacks, an innocent-looking form of catharsis. We do not harm them, nor do we feel their pain, but we laugh at their mishaps gleefully.

Is Schadenfreude dangerous? It really depends. It may desensitize us to other people's sufferings. It should be kept in check obviously as most of us do not want to end up as sociopaths.

Yet at the same time, Schadenfreude can actually protect us from ourselves, mainly from Thanatos, the drive that wants us to destroy ourselves, the urge that makes you suddenly want to jump onto a moving train, for no specific reason whatsoever; it is the evil voice inside your head that is tempting you to gamble away all your money leaving you with nothing at all.

The voice becomes most adamant when things are going really well reminding us that we are all walking a thin, mortal line, while misfortune and death may be just around the bend.

In such cases, Freud proposes an effective remedy, one that is unfortunately not heeded enough in today's culture and society: Taking refuge in Art.

By producing many of these temptations in written, visual or musical form, these demons may give us a respite for a while. We experience a form of catharsis on a deeper level, much more potent than the temporary relief of Schadenfreude. And we come out of it a little lighter, a little happier, and a little more sane.


Ana said...

Thank you for explaining it in a very understandable way.
I think this is very important to spread Freud's work to most people as possible especially now that psychiatry took over and made psychotherapy doubtful.
I will publish at my blog the first paragraph with credits for you, of course.
I was only looking for Eros and Thanatos in art but since you did such a good explanation I will combine the two.
Thank you.

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Thia said...

Wonderfully insightful.

Harpreet Khara said...

An excellent summary.

Tracy said...

...this time a year late, but wanted you to know this is a beautifully clear description of the dynamic forces at work "underground" and one of the essential defences used to harness them. It ties in to the descriptions of these forces run amuck in the sadomasochistic relationship. I have written about that in my blog.
Thanks as always...I always learn from you.

Anonymous said...

Nicely written. The picture of the sculpture, however, shows Cupid and Psyche. Cupid is the Ancient Roman god of erotic love, whose Ancient Greek name is Eros.

Psyche is the Ancient Roman goddess of the soul.

It is correct that Eros and Thanatos are complimentary figures in Freud's work, however, representing the life and the death force. They are, however, both men as as such would have to be gay in the above sculpture! It's by Antonio Canova, 1793 and it's my favourite :)

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you, Anonymous, and of course, you are perfectly right! I also think it is a beautiful sculpture and chose it for Eros, i.e. Cupid specifically in order to add some romance to my post and since Thanatos is rather bleak. I did not think of a romance between the two, but that's an interesting observation here!