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Sometimes a cigar . . .

Discredited with good reason during the rise of feminism, Freudian psychoanalytic theory and psychological models nonetheless do have their uses and insights, whatever apologies must be given and counterbalancing achieved before citing work so controversial. Along Marxist lines, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus offer one of the most challenging critiques and counterviews to Freudian sociodynamics and intrasubjective psychology. Nancy Chodorow and (to a lesser extent) Luce Irigary go beyond Freud’s extraordinarily complex theories of feminine psychological development. Of course, none of these models are without their problems.

Do that to me again

The part of Freud I am concerned with regard to rictuses has origins in what Freud identifies as repetition compulsion. Repetition of pleasurable things seems natural. We don’t ask ourselves why someone would want repeat something that once proved pleasurable. Because our earliest experiences of pleasure seem rooted in that which sustains life—milk from a mother’s breast, the shelter of our father’s arms, the loving touch of an older sibling—it is easy enough to say that that which provides pleasure is linked to that which gives life. The repetition of pleasurable things seems connected to the instinct to survive. Fair enough. But what about the repetition of things which are not clearly a part of survival?

Freud notes that

Novelty is always the condition of enjoyment. But children will never tire of asking an adult to repeat a game that he has shown them or played with them, till he is too exhausted to go on. And if a child has been told a nice story, he will insist on hearing it over and over again rather than a new one; and he will remorselessly [sic] stipulate that the repetition shall be an identical one and will correct any alterations of which the narrator may be guilty—though they may actually have been made in the hope of gaining fresh approval. None of this contradicts the pleasure principle; repetition, the re-experiencing of something identical, is clearly in itself a source of pleasure.

Though some may disagree, stories are not obviously a part of survival, pleasurable as their repetition may be. Despite that Freud begs the additional question about what makes repetition in and of itself a source of pleasure, his observation that children desire to repeat their pleasurable experiences is unimpeachable. Even adults are familiar with the pleasures of narrative repetition, and as mentioned earlier, we don’t ask ourselves why people seek to repeat their pleasures.

We do wonder why people repeat their unpleasures and puzzle over their desires to reexperience pain. For example, we are all familiar with people who find themselves drawn to persons with whom they are inclined to fight. Even though the person may believe the various people to whom he or she is drawn are distinct (as indeed they must be), there are underlying similarities between those people that ensure a relationship with any one of them and the person in question will know little peace. Often, it seems that the very underlying similarities which guarantee conflict are what attract the person in the first place. In such situations, it’s as if the person in question finds pleasure in pain, a reversal of logic often passed on as wisdom.

However, people attracted to those with whom they are likely to fight are pursuing their happiness, if in a roundabout way. Usually, their patterns of attraction are not driven directly by pleasure, but by a desire to avoid unpleasure. This is where the irony arises. Negation is the denial of something in its positive form. As a result, one must route through or around unpleasure in order to “avoid” it.

Hurt so good

In this reading, the repetition of pleasure and unpleasure both seek to maximize pleasure. One difference between them is that one positively defines pleasure while the other defines pleasure as the absence of pain. This difference means that the repetition of unpleasure is the better strategy to deal with threats to self-integrity. The quest for pleasure has no means to deal with pain because it does not recognize what pain is. On the other hand, the repetition of unpleasure not only knows what pain is, but it understands exactly what to do with it: find it so that it may be avoided. People who repeat their painful histories are often trying to gain control of things which threaten them. In a Freudian context, such people are said to be mastering their traumas. People who repeat their unpleasure are trying to master that which they do not (yet) control.

So, by bringing about the conditions which cause pain—choosing the person from whom one will receive abuse, inflicting on oneself a mutilating cut, consenting to one’s own ritual humiliation—people assume an active role where once they were passive. People “master” their traumas by inflicting those traumas upon themselves.

Though the repetition of pleasure and the repetition of pain revisit the past, the past is only a model for what may exist in the present. Freud mistakes repetition compulsion as the paradigm of instinctual behavior and from this extrapolates that “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things. . . .” In the case of avoiding pain, it is clear that the restoration of an “earlier state of things” is the means to change that earlier state as well as a way to alter the present. The impulse to repeat painful experiences is not always an attempt to reproduce the past exactly as it was.

Freud’s death instinct finds its origins in repetition compulsion because he derives a definition of instinctual behavior from his model of repetition compulsion and uses that definition as a basis for articulating the death instinct. Though Freud overgeneralizes the degree to which returning to the past is the aim of repetition compulsion and instinctual behavior, his insight that people desire to die is as profound as it is disturbing, and it is this instinct that sheds light on the organ of the rictus.

Stop . . . No, please. Stop . . . You're killing me.

Freud characterizes the death instinct as a biologically transmitted injunction to return to an “earlier state of things,” which in this case is the state preceding life, the state of the inorganic and the inanimate. But knowledge of the inorganic state prior to life has no organic or biological means of transmitting knowledge of itself precisely because it is prior to (outside) the organic. The only possible exception to this is the path of organic development itself. However, if organic development is itself the means by which knowledge of the inorganic is transmitted, the death instinct would manifest as a regression from adulthood to childhood rather than the progression of adulthood into senescence, which in its late stages has only the most superficial resemblance to childhood. Freud’s formulation of the death instinct feels mystical because it depends upon an unspecified mechanism to transmit the knowledge of the unliving to the living.

On the other hand, if the death instinct is considered as a manifestation of the pleasure principle rather than an instance of something beyond it, then the desire to die can be seen as an attempt to assert control over a situation that threatens to destroy the organism. In order to avoid the threat of death, death must be actively mastered. As with the negation of unpleasure, so too must the negation of death circuit through death in order to master it.

Instead of extending the domain of the pleasure principle, Freud redefines it as a manifestation of a death drive. The move is a curious one, considering that he absorbs his previous theory into the new one by recourse to mysticism and pseudoscience. Freud explains that

Seen in this light, the theoretical importance of the instincts of self-preservation, of self-assertion and of mastery greatly diminishes. They are component instincts whose function it is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off the possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself. We have no longer to reckon with the organism’s puzzling determination . . . to maintain its own existence in the face of every obstacle. What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion. Thus these guardians of life, too, were originally the myrmidons of death.

That’s not what I meant

Rather than making the instincts of self-preservation components of the death instinct, it seems more appropriate to interpret the death instinct as a manifestation of self-preservation, as a way of controlling the thing that most threatens living beings. Doing so explains the desire of an organism to maintain its integrity despite repeated assaults to that integrity as well as the actions which can only be interpreted as attempts at self-extinction. The desire to die is an attempt to master death.

Put another way, those instincts which seek to preserve life under certain circumstances produce behavior which bring about death. Thus, those things most closely associated with life—food, shelter, and love—also may have associations with death. In the context of avoiding death, food may appear repugnant, affection suffocating, love loathing.

Image of human skull, maxillofacial region

The reverse also holds true. That which is not living may signal life. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this is the enigmatic chasm of a skeletal rictus. The act of baring one’s teeth, smiling, can signal aggression, fear, joy or anxiety. The maxillary, mandibular, and dental bones of the human skull present the ghost of a facial expression. Taken together, these bones from a rictus, the most striking and disturbing feature of the human skull. The bare fact of a human skull announces death, but its rictus contradicts this obvious fact. The skeletal smile insinuates life in the face of the dead, a life of not life.

Mommy Dearest

A passage from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is particularly suggestive of this paradox. Dr. Avril Icandenza is in many ways an exemplary mother. The Dean of Academic Affairs of the Enfield Tennis Academy, survivor of her husband’s suicide, Avril’s sons Orin and Hal accidentally kill her beloved dog, S. Johnson, on their way to a liquor store. S. Johnson had been leashed to the back of the car Orin and Hal were driving. Orin constructs an ornate and fabulous lie, which Avril detects but does not expose.

Instead (as detailed in a letter Orin’s childhood friend M. K. Bain writes to Helen Steeply),

. . . after Orin had pretty clearly killed her beloved dog S. Johnson in a truly awful if accidental way, and then tried to evade responsibility for it with a lie that a parent far less intelligent than Avril could have seen right through, Mrs. Inc’s response was not only not conventionally abusive, but seemed almost too unconditionally loving and compassionate and selfless to possibly be true. Her response to Orin’s pathetic . . . lie was not to act credulous so much as to act as if the entire grotesque fiction had never reached her ears. . . . On the one hand, she mourned S.Johnson’s death very deeply. . . . but the other half of her emotional energies went into being overly solicitous and polite toward Orin . . . making the thousands of little gestures by which the technically stellar parent can make her child feel particularly valued—all out of concern that Orin in no way think she resented him for S. Johnson’s death or blamed him or loved him less in any way because of the whole incident. Not only was there no punishment or even visible pique, but the love-and-support-bombardment increased. and all this was coupled with elaborate machinations to keep the mourning and funeral arrangements and moments of wistful dog remembrance hidden from Orin. . . .

The question, which M. K. Bain brings up, is whether Avril Incandenza’s behavior is more about making sure her son feels loved or about her need to protect her status as a perfect mother. The answer may lie in Orin’s impression of Avril, wherein he will “assume an enormous warm and loving smile and move steadily toward you until he is in so close that his face is spread up flat against your own face and your breaths mingle.” Bain tells Helen Steeply—who is in love with Orin—that if she believes Orin “derive[s] his own best pleasure from giving [Helen] pleasure” that she might want to consider the “vision of Orin imitating his dear Moms as philanthropist: a person closing in, arms open wide, smiling.”

Avril Incandenza’s response to Orin’s brutal, if unintentional, killing of S. Johnson and his later lying to Avril about it is ostensibly a loving one. To the extent that Orin’s preposterous lie to someone as perceptive as Avril is an assault, so must Avril’s behaving in Orin’s presence in a manner “even more cheerful and loquacious and witty and intimate and benign” than normal must be an assault to Orin. Avril’s lovingness is faked and Orin cannot but know that he is the cause of her deceit. In this instance, motherly love actually is a cover for and indication of maternal anger. Avril’s loving mask does not mean Orin is without responsibility, but it is an example of how a loving gesture—“arms open wide, smiling”—can indicate something very different: in this case, the pain of knowing an animal companion was killed while dragged along several miles of highway.

Avril’s decision to hide her pain partially is motivated by a desire to protect Orin from feeling badly, but undeniably (as Bain suggests) Avril is on some level posturing as someone with the capacity to love infinitely, creating a fiction of herself as someone incapable of feeling anger, resentment, or sadness, even when such feelings are justified and appropriate. Avril becomes the image of motherly perfection and this image is inhuman. The wide open arms and smiling face pressed up against one’s own is comical not so much because such a gesture is impossible as much as it is outside the realm of humanity. The gesture is alien though apparently of human origin, just as the rictus is of human origin but apparently inhuman. There are few things more inhuman than a “perfect” mother.

You’re just like the others

The rictus in some ways belongs among the things which populate Kristeva’s notion of the abject, signalling to us the uncertain border between life and death. But rather than defiling life, the rictus and organs like it—vintage photographs, useless machinery, weapons—suggest that life and death, the human and the inhuman, may in fact be one and the same. That to be one is to be the other.