Freud’s Death Drive and The Mountain Goats
A key concept in psychoanalysis is the innate human drive towards self-destruction. Freud wrote about this unconscious instinct towards annihilation and death as an opposing force to the drive for life and growth. This ‘death drive’ is often referred to as Thanatos, named after the personification of death in Greek mythology, while the ‘life drive’ is known as Eros. Freud described this death drive as ‘an urge to return to an earlier state of things’. This destructive regression that fights against the instinct to live, grow and reproduce is a common theme in today’s society. Terrorism, Lars von Trier’s film ‘Antichrist’, and the desire to smoke (as pointed out in the very first episode of Mad Men) could all be perceived as examples of Thanatos.
In 2002, The Mountain Goats released ‘Tallahassee’, a concept album themed around the breakdown of a marriage. The focal song of the record is ‘No Children’, a spitting, despairing plea for destruction of the singer, the singer’s wife and the entire world. However, this is not a defeatist song. Death and ruin are not presented as desirable because they are an easy way out – they are something to be savoured and cherished. The destruction begins on a relatively small scale.
‘I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight.
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late.’
Here the singer is praying that whatever ways in which problems were being dealt with in his marriage fail and that it is past the point where reconciliation is possible. Soon after comes the anthemic ‘I hope you die, I hope we both die’ which is sung with a significant pause between the first and second halves of the phrase. This makes the listener initially believe that the singer is looking for an escape from his wife so he can be free. However, when we hear ‘I hope we both die’, we come to understand that what the singer is actually yearning for is total annihilation. In a later verse, we hear more about this apocalypse.
‘I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over.
And I hope you blink before I do
And I hope I never get sober.’
This desire for the situation to deteriorate even further in a greater hopelessness is characteristic of Freud’s death drive. The only possible way for such a downward spiral to end is the nothingness of death. However, the song’s true power comes in the way the final verse shows how the drive for death and the drive for life can intertwine.
‘I am drowning
There is no sign of land.
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand.’
Thanatos and Eros are hand in hand, just like the husband and wife. The desire for possession of another and for intimacy is mixed with the bitter hatred and desire for mutual destruction until the two drives are indistinguishable. The two characters, and the two drives, are inseparable and will forever be impossibly attracted to each other despite their irreconcilable differences. It is impossible to say whether this incongruence is responsible for psychological disturbance and mental health problems or instead whether it actually provides the balance required to exist in an uncertain world.