“THE DEATH INSTINCT”

Rank returned from New Caledonia very deteriorated. He had been working as a gravedigger and that gave him a macabre perspective about the subconscious mind. Until that moment none of the members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society had stopped to think seriously about death. Freud himself had dismissed death as an anecdotal fact of life that did not deserve to lose a moment thinking about it. The theory of “death instinct” was still far from being formulated. However, at one of the meetings of the Vienna Society, Rank took the floor to describe some of the death scenes he had witnessed, including the dead man who refused to be buried because he preferred incineration. The naturalistic descriptions that he made of the corpses and of their being buried several feet underground without any ventilation or amenities and, in general, the unhealthy conditions of the graves, generated great discomfort among the attendees, some of whom questioned his observations qualifying them as mere macabre projections of the “sex instinct”. Stekel was the one who most accused the news that at the end of life death awaits us all. He was also the one who had more to lose if he died because he had a very valuable collection of stamps. Freud was not present at the conference, but when he learned that Rank had “put fear in their heads”, he severely rebuked him and demanded an immediate retraction. It was the first collision between the two analysts. Rank agreed reluctantly and convened another conference in which he took back his previous statements. However, the damage had already been done and the seed of the “death instinct” was destined to bear fruit in the years to come.

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