Photo: David Flam
The stage is drenched in darkness. You can only see the feet of the protagonist and her lover, who move, like Thanatos and Eros, in a graceful pas-de-deux of a passionate sexual-encounter. The naked, vulnerable feet move together as if they were dancing the pirouettes of love, or even death, which seem to be two faces of the same Janus-head.
With this scene starts the play Angst, currently played at the theatre Kammerspiele in Munich. The play is based on the novelette by Stefan Zweig, who was a close friend of Sigmund Freud. No wonder that Zweig had a profound affinity for psychology.
Angst itself is connected to the two innate and universal instincts (Triebe) of life and death, libido and mortido, Eros and Thanatos, according to Freud. These interdependent opposites reappear throughout the play, since Freud’s influence was omnipresent in the Viennese fin de siècle. (See picture above: Gustav Klimt). In one utterly striking scene the opposites appear in an allegory as the protagonist masturbates, while having a dream of being murdered by her husband.
Are Thanatos and Eros connected?
How far is the “self-preservation instinct” and the drive “to lead organic life back into an inanimate state” interconnected? I think, we can observe in our quotidian life how the feeling of procreation and love defines the opposite feeling of hate and aggression and how they can even have a synergy effect.
For example, people who meet in extreme situations (e.g as hostages or other close to death experiences) have the propensity to create stronger emotions for each other, than people who meet in normal circumstances.
In such a dualistic approach the one side defines the other. Therefore, it is possible to intensify the one side automatically, while being confronted with the other side. As soon as we are exposed to death and suffering, we have the tendency to appreciate our life and love even more. For the same reason Ludwig Wittgenstein fought voluntarily in the First World War: He wanted to see the enlightenment of life in the eye of death.
There are also those beings whose emotional fickleness leads to a constant vicissitude between tears of joy and tears of sadness. Or as The Persuaders sang it in the beginning of the 70’s: “It is a thin line between love and hate.”
On the other hand, it is a common phenomenon that Thanatos presents makes Eros even stronger. This syntheses in the Hegelian sense can be seen in following examples: sadism, masochism, too spicy foot, etc. The very same synergy occurs when the protagonist of the play masturbates.
Philosophy of Dualism
Although there are some psychoanalysts who disagree with Freud’s theory (see: Melanie Klein), I believe that the theory of dualism is one of the main characteristics of our life, penetrating even into the depths of our minds.
Dualism is mentioned in every religion (especially Hinduism) and defines our thinking and living in form of objects and subjects. Many philosophers argue that x necessarily creates ¬ x – just look around you: Ying and Yang, Animus and Anima (see: Jung), plus and minus, etc.
There are two ancient philosopher-kings of dualism. One is Lao-Tse the Chinese philosopher who build his entire philosophy of Taoism around opposites. The other is the Greek version, Heraclitus, whose philosophy was also focusing on opposites and the unity thereof.
Freud himself describes the universe as the battlefield in which love and death fight for dominance. Yet, this not a new idea: Empedocles argued more than 2300 years earlier that there is a constant struggle in the Universe between love and hate over the control therein.
In the end, most religions and philosophers agreed that the aim is to overcome dualism whether by nirvana and therefore the inexistence of dualism or the equilibrium between opposites (which is in a certain way an inexistence as well). Until then “nothing endures but change”, as Heraclitus put it. Or in other words: Thanatos and Eros will dance until they will rest breathless in each other’s arms.
Here you can see them dancing: