The Life of the Libido

Freud made the point that without an unconscious, there could not be repression, and without repression, there could not be an unconscious. In large part, repression is about holding back certain instinct from “the possibility of satisfaction.” What arises from the failure of certain libidinal instincts in satisfying their aims and goals are certain neurotic symptoms. As Freud argued, a neurotic symptom “is a sign of, and a substitute for, an instinctual satisfaction which has remained in abeyance; it is a consequence of the process of repression.”

In turn, the libidinal instincts of the unconscious human mind are of two kinds, namely, eros and sadism. As Freud wrote: “For the opposition between the two classes of instincts we may put the polarity of love and hate.” In turn, the libido has an “erotic object-cathexis” to which it is attached. Thus, the conscious mind – or the ‘ego’ – serves the forces of repression, hate, and sadism by preventing the libido from attaining its ultimate aim. As Freud wrote: “By thus getting hold of the libido from the object-cathexes, setting itself up as the sole love-object, and de-sexualizing or sublimating the libido of the id, the ego is working in opposition to the purposes of Eros and placing itself at the service of the opposing instinctual impulses.” 

Whereas the aim of the libido is union with its erotic object-cathexes, the aim of the ego is to make itself the ‘love-object’ of the libido in an effort stop the union between the libido and its erotic object-cathexes from happening. As Freud wrote: 

“At the very beginning, all the libido is accumulated in the id, while the ego is still in process of formation or is still feeble. The id sends part of this libido out into erotic object-cathexes, whereupon the ego, now grown stronger, tries to get hold of this object-libido and to force itself on the id as a love object.”

By “sublimating” the libido, the ego is thought of as “assisting” the libido. The ego “aims at attaching the id’s libido to itself.” The ego becomes “not only a helper to the id; it is also a submissive slave who courts his master’s love.” The ego and the id then become the “ego-id” as a result of the ego intercepting the libido which emanates from the id and is directed at the erotic object-cathexes. When the “ego-id” is differentiated, there are “destructive tendences” which need to be neutralized. Arguably, everything that is known about the libido “relates to the ego” in the sense that the ego transforms the libido from a “narcissistic” one to one that is fixated towards an “object-love.” 

In turn, the root of all hysteria and neurosis is “a conflict between the claims of sexuality and those of the ego.” Hence, the ‘life of the libido’ or the “vicissitudes” of the libido is then characterized by its “subjection” to “the influences of the three great polarities that dominate mental life.” These three “great polarities” are the “activity-passivity as the biological,” the “ego-external world as the real,” and “pleasure-unpleasure as the economic polarity” to borrow from Freud. ‘Repression’ makes up one of the two ends of the vicissitudes which the libido undergoes at the hands of these three “great polarities.” But interestingly, repression is then encompassed or made an appendage of the unconscious or “id” from which the libido emanates. 

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