Death and the Maiden

Freud’s theory of the death drive also gives us a way to think about gender.

Walter Benjamin remarked of the people who experienced the First World War:

A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its center, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body.

What this body could mean was newly in question. Benjamin discusses economic depression, technological innovation, moral uncertainty, and violence, but the First World War also provoked a crisis of masculinity. Men died, were wounded, and later found themselves unemployed in unprecedented numbers. Meanwhile women, as Sarah M Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in No Man’s Land, “seemed to become, as if by some uncanny swing of history’s pendulum, even more powerful.” Tiny fragile human bodies threatened to detach themselves from their traditionally assigned gender roles. At this historical moment, death collided with gender.
Confronted with a profusion of patients shaken by traumatic dreams in the wake of World War I, Sigmund Freud had a theoretical as well as therapeutic problem. He had previously asserted that every dream is the fulfillment of a wish, but the repetition he encountered in traumatic dreams contradicted this claim. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he asked, Why repeat something unpleasurable? Why return to the site of trauma?

To resolve this problem, Freud returned to the mist-enveloped beginnings of life itself. There is a “death instinct” that “was brought into being by the coming to life of inorganic substance,” he wrote. Death is not an event but a state; death is inorganic nature. Life arose from this ­inert primordial condition and its instinct is to return there. Freud is well aware how weird and implausible this sounds, admitting that even he is not convinced by his own eccentric argument.

It may have been that he was trying to resolve two problems at once. Corpses return to inorganic nature, but the mangled war dead returned in dreams. Jagged fragments of memory piercing the flesh of the present, these undead apparitions and the dreamers they haunted were overwhelmingly male. Masculinity smashed to smithereens—torn, limping, fractured, dismembered. Shrapnel embedded in living tissue. When death coexists with life it is not unity but mutilation. Freud looked further back in time than many, but the conservative impulse to restore a previous state of things in the wake of war was widespread.

Female psychoanalysts writing in the interwar years outlined a phenomenon they described as the “masculinization of women.” “We see patients rejecting their female functions,” reported Karen Horney in 1926. Horney likened woman’s resentfully subordinated relationship to men to a worker’s relationship to the boss. She claimed that her female patients often dreamed of castrating their fathers or husbands, simultaneously seeing themselves as “mutilated, injured, or wounded” men. Paradoxically, these women wanted both to destroy and to become men.

Writing on death, Freud does not directly confront the shattering experience of war which forces him to take a peculiar detour into prehistory. He is equally silent on the subject of gender. But his vision of death potentially jeopardizes conventional psychoanalytic understandings of masculinity and femininity—death recognizes no gender distinctions. Freud imagined inorganic nature as prior to life, but his understanding of the death drive is laced with the repressed anxieties about gender that animated interwar discourse. What if his theory is turned on its head? What if inorganic nature, free from gender distinction but now in coexistence with (gendered) life, lay in the present and not in the past? What if the war had killed gender itself stone dead?

Fort/da. Let’s start again.

In the beginning Freud created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Freud moved upon the face of the waters. And Freud said, “Let there be life,” and there was life.

This is how Freud introduces his concept of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: “The attributes of life were at some time evoked in inanimate matter by the action of a force whose nature we can form no conception… The tension which then arose in what had hitherto been an inanimate substance endeavored to cancel itself out. In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state.”

Before life there was death. Freud doesn’t go into the particulars of this lifeless universe. We might imagine the solitary earth spinning through lifeless galaxies—cliff ­faces, chunks of ice, mud flats, stalactites, deserted beaches, barren hillsides, boulders, unmined clusters of twinkling sapphire and ruby, perhaps a river or the occasional pool of lava. Ashes and ashes; dust and dust. Perhaps a black obelisk throbs ominously in the desert. Who knows. Freud certainly doesn’t care. This terrestrial fantasy is already too concrete, dynamic and differentiated. For Freud, the beginning of life is really the beginning of time as such.

When life finally wriggles up from the dirt to inaugurate history it is barely distinguishable from its inorganic surroundings. Freud imagines a tiny cell, “a little fragment of living substance … suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies.” To protect itself from the violent onslaught of the world, this lonely scrap of life forms a protective shield. It wishes to die only its proper, “natural” death and will therefore go to great lengths to avoid perishing at the hands of hostile external forces. To survive attempts on its life, the fragile organism coats itself in a layer of death—“its outermost surface ­ceases to have the structure proper to living matter.” The organic dons the mask of the inorganic. As more complex life-forms evolve, this surface layer is internalized but the primal deathliness remains.

In 1929, Joan Riviere, a British psychoanalyst, described the process by which women who transgressed the confines of gender expectation in the workplace often responded by donning “a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and retribution from men.” We might align this masked woman to Freud’s tiny cell—to protect itself from the violent onslaught of the world, this lonely scrap of life forms a protective shield—“its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter.” The organic dons the mask of the inorganic.

Riviere’s discussion of femininity as masquerade understands gender as semblance. An inorganic costume is required to simulate the supposedly organic gender differences the war had torn to shreds. As the boundaries separating the masculine from the feminine are wearing away in the social realm, they must be more rigidly upheld through the performance of ideal norms. Freud suggests that the inorganic veneer is genderless. But for Riviere, donning a mask of femininity does not eradicate the notion of sexual difference, it consolidates it.

Horney and Riviere cling stubbornly a world carved up into gendered halves—man/woman, feminine/masculine, male/female—the words are repeated and recombined insistently, but to what do they refer? They shuttle wildly between abstract and concrete. At times gender seems to inhere in bodies and at others only adhere to them. Something spills over, refuses to be contained.

By insisting that the binary between masculinity and femininity has a genital correlate, Horney and Riviere are resigned to assisting their patients to function within the prevailing norms of society. Healthy women must come to terms with their lack of a penis, which these psychoanalysts still insist defines them psychologically. But the “masculinized woman” is more explosive than they allow her [him, it, them] to be.

Horney and Riviere still treat gender difference as a point of origin. But Freud looked further back in time. He speculates that in the beginning everything was united. Here there were no gender distinctions—there were no distinctions at all. The first thing the Oxford English Dictionary tells us about the inorganic is that it is “not characterized by having organs or members fitted for special functions.”

The emergence of life represented a violent break with this original unity. “Splintered fragments of living substance” yearned to be whole again. This is where Freud situates the origins of the sexual instincts or Eros, which strive to draw together what the rupture from the inorganic tore apart. Freud considers that the opinion Plato ascribes to Aristophanes in the Symposium might have been correct: bodies were not originally gendered male or female.

But the real insight of Beyond the Pleasure Principle is that death and life are contemporaries. Like a bullet piercing the flesh of the present, inorganic nature has a revolutionary charge - not an uncontaminated then but a hybrid, technologized now. During the interwar years, mass-­produced commodities marketed to a new kind of female ­producer-consumer proliferated—new perfumes with chemical bases that bore no resemblance to the fragrance of flowers, sleek rayon stockings, gaudy lipstick—synthetic masks of womanliness appropriate to an emerging synthetic reality. Life coated in a layer of death. Even at her most “feminine” she [he, it, they] is inorganic.

A 1925 article in The New Republic described the archetypal flapper as a deathly figure: “She is frankly, heavily made-up, not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect—pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes-the latter look not so much debauched… as diabetic.” The mask of womanliness is also a death mask. But the cadaverous appearance of the flapper does not bring her any closer to the grave. Her inorganic visage startles the male observer because it threatens to detach her from the organic role she has been culturally assigned.

An artificial sheen, an inorganic shield, covers bodies whose exit from nature into history is assured. The ­accretions of history (gender) cannot be scraped away to reveal some original nature (sex) beneath.

Walter Benjamin also discussed the “masculinization of woman” brought about by the entry of women into industry, the transformative impact of machines on flesh. “Mania for masks” and a “fanatical love of masquerade”—in The Arcades Project, based on notes gathered between 1927 and 1940, Benjamin declares that fashions are “a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion.” For Benjamin, fashion is associated with women and aligned with death:

Fashion stands in opposition to the organic. It couples the living body to the inorganic world. To the living, it defends the rights of the corpse. The fetishism that succumbs to the sex appeal of the inorganic is its vital nerve. The cult of the commodity presses such fetishism into its service.

Sexual fetishism eroticizes inanimate things—shoes, garters, stone eggs, throbbing black obelisks, ­whatever—“it is at much at home with what is dead as with living flesh.” This logic extends to female bodies which literature compares to the inorganic—“alabaster, snow, precious stones”— and carves up into constituent parts like cadavers on the dissecting table. Cosmetics, clothing and gleaming accoutrements form an inorganic shield. In a glass-roofed world where streams run with asphalt, this inorganic armor does not rot or wither. The deathly modern body is a sublime object that has nothing much in common with the process of dying. Like the flapper’s cadaverous mask it disavows the process of aging, recalling the Sadean victim who survives endless mutilations without a scratch. Benjamin declares: “The sadist is bent on replacing the human organism with the image of machinery. Sade is the offspring of an age that was enraptured by automatons.” The Arcades Project is a cyborg manifesto.

On the street corners of this “erotology of the damned” stands the Parisian prostitute, on whose bruised flesh commodity and sexual fetishism converge. Under capitalism, relations between people become relations between things. But even reified bodies bleed. No one would suggest that a layer of make-up and jewelry could literally protect her (or anyone else) from the violent blows of the external world. Reinstating the original unity is impossible. For Benjamin, transforming sex into a commodity tears woman from her natural reproductive destiny. Torn from nature and thrown into history, the modern, technological women who stalk the arcades are potentially explosive figures. At its most brutal—paradoxically, perversely—capitalist modernity illuminates the charred remains of already detonated nature and provides the ammunition for the destruction of the neat but lethal abstractions it has erected on a plurality of people. Something new might wriggle up from the dirt.

In “A Carcass”, Baudelaire compares a rotting and putrescent corpse to a woman in the throes of passion. He imagines worms devouring his beloved’s decomposing flesh. Benjamin quotes another poem from Les Fleurs du mal which imagines a sterile woman made of jewels and ice. She is also dead:


Precious minerals form her polished eyes,

and in her strange symbolic nature where

angel and sphinx unite, where diamond,

gold, and steel dissolve into one light,

shines forever, useless as a star,

the sterile woman’s icy majesty.


For the misogynist poet this creature is an aberration, a deviation from the natural course. Incapable of bearing children, this brittle inanimate woman-thing has no function. Dazzling, cold and impervious to pleasure or pain; she casts off her organic properties. Baudelaire describes a diamond life beyond the pleasure principle.

Women, of course, are frequently consigned to nature, but most commonly to an organic, soft, mutable and fertile nature of verdant meadows, waxing moons and unfurling petals. Flows, excesses, morphologies: Julia Kristeva likens the maternal body to a rotting corpse. Baudelaire’s eroticized cadaver decomposes into the wet ground—it shape-shifts, its boundaries dissolve. It seeps, it drips, it stinks, it oozes. In contrast, woman as inorganic nature is solid, bounded, consistent, static, impermeable. She is everything she shouldn’t be. Difference dissolves in her but she remains distinct. Already dead, she survives endless mutilations without a scratch.

In “Fragment of a Case on Hysteria” (1905) Freud famously claimed that his patient Dora’s dream of a jewel box symbolized her vagina “in danger.” He viewed this substitution as a repression of her sexual desire for a predatory older man. But perhaps there are other reasons for wishing to substitute warm and vulnerable flesh for a hard and unyielding object, to form an inorganic shell in a moment of danger. As Freud himself notes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in “an environment charged with dangerous stimuli” such metamorphoses are necessary to survive. Smashed up against cold hard laws an indestructible self is constructed out of cold hard stone.

Although Baudelaire’s sterile woman might be “useless” in the sphere of the bourgeois family, that does not, of course, preclude her from having a use-value in the sphere of exchange. For Firdaus, the protagonist of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, life as a prostitute was preferable to her traumatic experiences in the family, in marriage, in the office, in love. She sets her own price, refuses whom she pleases and lives a comfortable independent life surrounded by books. Icy majesty becomes a defense. In order to preserve herself from the onslaught of the external world she forms a protective shield:

To protect my deeper, inner self from men, I offered them only an outer shell. I kept my heart and soul, and let my body play its role, its passive, inert, unfeeling role... I was telling the man he could have my body, he could have a dead body.

Dazzling, cold, seductive and impervious to pleasure or pain; she casts off her organic properties. But this deathly veneer proves insufficient. She is eventually trapped by a pimp who prevents her from working autonomously. Freud defines trauma as any experience powerful enough to breach an “otherwise efficacious barrier,” a rush of stimuli capable of breaking through the psyche’s protective armor. But who can fight swords armed only with a shield? Realizing that no existence can be tolerated within the existing state of things she stabs the pimp to death. Awaiting her own execution in prison she declares that she is finally free.

Like the prosthetic Sadean heroine or Baudelaire’s ice maiden, Freud’s vision of uncontaminated inorganic nature is not an alternative to a world governed by violent abstractions but the product of one. El Sadaawi’s narrator declares: “Life is very hard. The only people who really live are harder than life itself.” Ultimately those who can live will be those whose interests (and bodies) the institutional myrmidons of the family, private property and the state are structured to defend. For everyone else, it is impossible to survive without a scratch. Stranded between a rock and a hard place, Firdaus discovered that sometimes the only thing harder than life is death. And even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.

Let’s return to Europe in the interwar years. Published in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando tells the story of a man who metamorphoses into a woman. Nature, Woolf declares, (but we could say history) has made us “unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case.” Throbbing between lives, we are all simultaneously pliable, brittle, opaque, translucent, sparkly, dull and plenty of other things that don’t come in oppositional pairs. If only we could survive that way.

To move beyond the death drive would not restore an earlier state of things but kill the present one, including its division of life into two distinct genders. “Splintered fragments of living substance”—not battling to survive in fortified bunkers or yearning for a final moment of reconciliation but pulsating together in undominated particularity. It will take some softness to destroy this hard city. This was Firdaus’s insight: “Who says murder does not require that a person be gentle?”