It is, moreover, a suggestive fact that the existence of the pair of opposites formed by sadism and masochism cannot be attributed merely to the element of aggressiveness. We should rather be inclined to connect the simultaneous presence of these opposites with the opposing masculinity and femininity which are combined in bisexuality— a contrast which often has to be replaced in psycho-analysis by that between activity and passivity. Three Essays, p.160
In ‘Aggression, the Death Drive, and the Problem of Sadomasochism’ Sternbach argues that the death drive should be reconceived of as a drive to tension reduction within an organism. Sternbach, along with many others, fails to see any connection between a tendency to inorganicity and destructive impulses. Harkening back to the earlier conception of the drives in which one feels both hungry and amorous he links destructiveness to the feeling of overcoming mounting tension in the psyche. Basically, Sternbach articulates the position many previous analysts held in referring to aggression as rooted in frustration and pointing to how the aggression of other mammals appears in specific contexts (i.e. mating) in otherwise stable coexistence. However, I still believe that this is a narrow definition and doesn’t account for other phenomena which show up in psychopathology .
There are differences of temperament and while one child one child is very interested in the breast or in the environment around it another will require more coaxing to even show an interest. Similarly, we know that cancer always exists in the organism and that in cases that aren’t environmentally based the immune system simply stops fighting it off. Additionally, in neurasthenia the person may lose appetite and the body may begin to wither away. This loss of energy or degeneration corresponds to what Freud calls the ‘unpleasurable relaxations of tension’ that are still facts to be explained even if an appeal to an inborn pull to inorganicity is given up (Freud, The Economic Problem of Masochism, p.160). I don’t want to rehabilitate some mythological death drive but rather draw attention to the notion that when there are two opposing forces and tension is increased there seems to be two options for an organism to lower psychic energy and stave off a traumatic experience:
1. get rid of or scare the object supplying the opposing force (destruction)
2. get rid of or diminish the part of self that experiences the demand (degeneration)
If we are able to keep these two reactions separate and not just say that one is aggression outward and the other is aggression forced inward then we have what I believe could be the biological root of later gender difference. Firstly, aggression that is turned round on the self classically has consequences like epilepsy in which the muscular apparatus doesn’t degenerate but becomes chronically tense and subject to convulsion. Secondly, many religious traditions have recognized separate energies, in yin and yang for example, and such observations aren’t inherently metaphysical like the claim of an afterlife is. Thirdly, grouping them together would be reductionistic and set the stage to say a woman is an impotent or castrated man. When analysts refer to suicide as being an aggressive act or, go along with Freud in saying that pity is a reaction formation against sadism it ignores the qualitative difference in feeling. Just as the narcissist may over-value himself it seems like a hysteric may over-value the object and confronted with the prospect of being alone she wouldn’t end her life as an aggressive act toward the internalized parent as the narcissist might. Rather, from the beginning she might have endured separation from the mother as a self-sacrifice and her longings for death (‘half in love with easeful death’), the common usage of melancholia, show a different relation to self than the narcissist’s. Aggression and destructiveness are a very important part of life but they aren’t everything. Some patients need to be coaxed from their dissociative and degenerated states and convincing them that they are covertly being aggressive or ‘joining’ them in hopes that inhibitions on aggression may be overcome will be for naught.