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Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of LifeReview - Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life
by Jonathan Lear
Harvard University Press, 2000
Review by Havi Carel
Mar 6th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 10)

Plato's myth of the cave tells us of people who live inside a cave without realising it, and who think that the shadows they see on the cave walls are the way things really look. Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life is an attempt to show us the problems and temptations embodied in this myth in three domains: philosophy, psychoanalysis and our own self-conception. For the author, Jonathan Lear, the problem is not that we too are cave dwellers, unaware of the illusionary and limited state in which we exist (although undoubtedly that is a problem too), but rather that we buy into distinction between inside the cave and outside the cave, i.e. we think that there is a place outside the cave. This worldview is what Lear calls the seduction fantasy. We want to believe there is an outside to the cave - that there is a place outside suffering, outside frustration, outside the tension life contains - but ultimately, this seductive idea (seductive because of its promise of a better place, a better life, of happiness) will only harm us by frustrating us with its unattainability.

Lear presents two readings of texts that offer examples of this seduction instigated by an ideal, but bound up with failure. The first is Aristotle's notion of happiness as the contemplative life, described in the Nicomachean Ethics. The second is Freud's notion of the death drive, put forth in his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Through a patient, thorough and highly accessible reading of these two texts, Lear shows how both Aristotle and Freud were seduced by their own creation of a teleological (goal-oriented) concept, and how this concept breaks down and disrupts the function of their theories.

Thus happiness, which is the aim of all people for Aristotle, turns out in Lear's reading to be something external to life, something unattainable by the citizens of the Athenian polis, because the truly happy life for Aristotle is a life of contemplation. This ultimately demands solitude and passivity, which in turn can only be achieved outside the polis, i.e. outside society, and for a limited time. Thus happiness is conceived as what we don't have, which Lear claims, "is tantamount to introducing a source of discontent within ethical life" (p.41). Although Aristotle posits happiness as the aim of every human life, he also makes sure that this goal remains unattainable, which puts the teleological worldview itself into question. As Lear writes: "… while it looks on the surface that 'happiness' is a profound organising principle for human life, just under the surface we begin to see that its injection into life has a profoundly disturbing effect… 'happiness' creates its own discontent" (p.60). Lear's argument becomes less convincing at this point because it overlooks the fact that happiness is also a regulative ideal for Aristotle, incorporated into everyday practices through his notion of flourishing, and not just a utopian external ideal. Moreover, it seems that this more ordinary happiness or flourishing is what therapy aims at, and as such is relevant to the psychoanalytic understanding of happiness as well.

Chapter Two scrutinises Freud's much-debated concept of the death drive, which is the most metaphysical and speculative of all his concepts. The death drive, according to Freud, is a fundamental force that guides every living organism, and its conflict and strife with its opposing force, Eros, produces the dynamics of life. Whereas Eros promotes unity, life, positivity, the death drive is the nest of aggression, destructiveness and the tendency towards stagnation, repetition, and negativity. Lear's claim is that the death drive, which we take to be the metaphysical explanation of human aggression and destructiveness, is actually a fantasy, and doesn't exist at all. By deconstructing Freud's idea of repetition compulsion, which is used by Freud to posit the idea of the death drive, Lear shows that what Freud takes to be an organising principle of psychic life, i.e. repetition, is actually nothing but the tendency of the mind to disrupt itself, and that "these disruptions are not for anything - they are devoid of purpose" (p.77). And so, again, Lear shows how a teleological system - in this case the psyche striving towards an earlier, inanimate state - is actually undermined by its own teleological principle: "…what lies 'beyond the pleasure principle' isn't another principle, but a lack of principle" (p.85). Moreover, by deconstructing the concept of the death drive Lear further shows that psychoanalysis has no theory of aggression, a fact that Freud attempted to cover over precisely by postulating the theory of the death drive. But how arbitrary are these mental disruptions? If repetition is indeed identical, as it should be, doesn't that point to a unifying principle of repetition rather than to arbitrariness? And even if the disruptions are arbitrary, isn't Lear's insistence on their arbitrariness an organising principle as much as Freud's fixation on repetition is? Despite Lear's arguments I remain convinced that the death drive, with all its problems and inconsistencies, is a valuable tool for analysing and understanding aggression and destructiveness, and that by creating this new 'thing' Freud hasn't, as Lear claims, made an ontological mistake, but inaugurated a new language for talking about aggression. Similarly, Lear's claim that the aggressive drive lacks any explanatory power ignores its function within Freud's dualistic model, which explains psychic dynamics in terms of a dualistic strife between Eros and Thanatos, the life and death drives.

The third and final chapter deals with what Lear dubs 'the remainder of life'. This remainder is formed from the tensions and pressures of life which cannot be contained within any teleological system. The question we now face is how we should deal with this remainder and its (sometimes) destructive effects? Lear suggests that we need to find acceptable ways of living without a principle, ways of breaking with metaphysical fantasy, by accepting the fact that we are "…constitutionally unable to keep things fixed and forever immune to disruption and change" (p.112). In order to do this we need to drop the metaphor of the cave and our striving towards a fantastic 'outside'. We need to embrace the idea that disruptiveness offers us something precious: the possibility of opening up our fields of possibilities. Through some clinical examples Lear fleshes out the idea that there can be constructive breaks in psychic organisation and shows how disruptiveness, arbitrary and violent, can re-sketch a theoretical or psychic horizon.

A final comment: throughout Lear's discussion of suffering, there is no mention of social, political and economic factors that structure human suffering. Even given the psychoanalytic context of the book, the idea that not all suffering is an intrinsic part of the psyche, and that there are social as well as individual causes of suffering, seems lacking here.

All in all I found the book rich and stimulating, aimed at both professional philosophers and analysts and at a general audience with some familiarity with the ideas discussed, as it uses little jargon and is refreshingly straight-forward. It productively asks important questions and offers valuable insights which emerge from its use of both philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Havi Carel is a PhD student at the Department of Philosophy, University of Essex, who has recently completed her thesis on the concept of death in Heidegger and Freud. She teaches philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and at the University of Essex.


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