One of the most valuable parts of my summer seminar (which just ended yesterday) was that it gave me a chance to really work through Freud’s key texts on the drives. The one that has stayed with me the most is Triebe und Triebschicksale (Drives and Drive-Fates), which is normally translated “Instincts and their Vicissitudes.” The inappropriateness of “instinct” as a translation for Trieb is widely acknowledged, but what about “vicissitudes” for the puzzling “drive-fates”? As Eric Santner observed, “vicissitudes” has etymological roots in the area of the “vicarious,” and Freud does talk about how drives can substitute for each other, so basically there’s some justification — but at the end of the day, Freud seemingly uses “Schicksal” (in the meta-psychological writings and elsewhere) as a technical term for what one might call the “outcome” of drive-dynamics, and I think that “vicissitude” just doesn’t work for that usage. More importantly, though, really dwelling on the notion of “fate” has helped me to understand better what’s going on with drives, and the English translation, by covering up the systematic usage of “Schicksal,” likely never would have led me to the same insights.
To get at Freud’s concept of fate, we should look to Freud’s own favored point of reference in Greek tragedy: Oedipus Rex. Sophocles presents the oracle’s prophecy as a brute fact, with no explanation or motivation. While the mythological tradition explained that Oedipus’s father had offended the gods and hence deserved punishment, Sophocles omits that background. The prophecy thus simply is. To that extent, it is meaningless, outside the space of reasons. It is simply a demand that will be somehow fulfilled. How does one deal with such a demand from within the space of reason? In some cases, one might simply go along with it, but this one is pretty horrifying — and so one runs away. Indeed, one runs away and plays one’s cards so amazingly right that one winds up a beloved and wise king. Yet the demand of the prophecy will be fulfilled, and as it turns out, it is precisely one’s amazingly right decisions that led to its fulfillment.
Drives are the same kinds of implacable demands. They are outside the space of reason, both in the sense of being unexplained brute facts and in the sense of asserting their demands even though they are in conflict with each other and with physical reality. In order to operate within a social space of reasons, one must somehow negotiate with these drives, fulfilling some and putting off others — indeed, totally rejecting or refusing some. Drives are clever, though (perhaps Freud wants us to hear a secondary meaning of Geschick, skill, in Schicksal), and they will find a way to make their demands felt. This means that one’s sensible strategies will always have unintended side-effects (as when the decision to identify with the Father gives birth to the implacable superego).
The neuroses and psychoses are a description of various unsustainable solutions to the problem of drives — but normality isn’t a “successful” strategy, it’s just a less-bad one. There is no room for success here, because the problem of the drives is inherently unfixable. It’s our inexorable fate. The question is whether we can develop new, more livable strategies that open up more of a space for a future, or — in more radical visions — whether we can tap into the drives themselves as a powerful source for creative transformation.