I wonder if any of our members has read Robert Langs’ most recent book, Freud on a Precipice. How Freud’s Fate pushed Psychoanalysis over the Edge? While most Jungians seem familiar with Langs’ earlier work on derivative communication, communication styles, and the importance of the analytic frame, I have only met a few familiar with Langs’ work of the last decade. I have just reviewed Freud on a Precipice in the most recent issue of the Journal of Analytical Psychology (vol. 57, no. 1, 127-8) and the book strikes me as a good introduction to Langs’ current research.

            Key to Langs’ recent work is how death anxiety and death-related trauma are the most basic factors in all psychic conflict and distress. Langs considers death anxiety to be so potent a force in psychic conflict that he claims: (1) it is archetypal, in Jung’s sense; (2) we therefore always experience death anxiety on some level and (3) evolution has conferred upon us a psychic factor whereby we deny this anxiety, lest we be overwhelmed by it. Thus it appears – if I understand Langs correctly – that some amount of psychic conflict is more or less inevitable, because we need to face death-related traumas and anxieties in order to gain psychic health yet we are simultaneously battling an ingrained, evolutionary mechanism tending us to deny it.

            These ideas enter into the Freud book, in that Langs postulates that current psychoanalytic practice and theory in essence “acts out” this psychic situation by denying the centrality of death anxiety, something which Langs seeks to prove happened in Freud’s own case and which continues, he thinks, throughout the psychoanalytic tradition. How plausible do you all think it is that death-related traumas and anxieties lie at the root of psychic conflict? Does anyone find parallels to Langs’ claims in the Jungian tradition? Are there signs of the denial of death-related anxieties and traumas in the Jungian tradition?


Some related texts:

Langs, Robert. 2010. Freud on a Precipice. How Freud’s Fate pushed Psychoanalysis over the Edge. Lanham MD: Jason Aronson

Langs, Robert. 2004. “Death anxiety and the emotion-processing mind”. Psychoanalytic Psychology. Vol. 21, no. 1, 31-53

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  • Oh, I thought this image was relevant to the topic.

    It is from Tempur Sschlafzentrum's Facebook page. A friend translated its caption:

    "And suddenly, I looked at the bull. He had this innocence that all animals have in their eyes, and he looked at me with this pleading. It was like a cry for justice, deep down inside of me. I describe it as being like a prayer - because if one confesses, ...it is hoped, that one is forgiven. I felt like the worst shit on earth."

    This photo shows the collapse of Torrero Alvaro Munera, as he realized in the middle of the his last fight... the injustice to the animal. From that day forward he became an opponent of bullfights.


    • Cliff, the image of the pleading bull that stops he bullfighter in his tracks is poignant. This is the moment that the toreador confronts his own personal grief and becomes a man.

      Sometimes therapists are fighting that bull each day in their work and if they would only turn inward and experience the grief that truly belongs to them they would be give up being a therapist and become a poet.

  • I very much appreciate the response to my post. It does occur to me that Langs' perspective and that of Kay and David share a lot with with existentialism's perspective -- that awareness of death is essential to living fully. (This was also proposed by Giegerich as the rationale behind animal sacrifice, as I recall.)

    Exactly what we are to make of this awareness is the important thing to me. The primary recognition is simply the brutal reality that our time is quite limited. That is, interestingly, behind a Jungian analyst's work with blocked writers, as the New Yorker wrote last March. Another way of putting this is the primacy of the present, the function of mindfulness.

    To a significant degree, this was my response to watching all my friends die, many rejected by their families. I suddenly realized that I was sick of writing magazine stories for a living and went back to school for degrees in psychology. I wanted to do what I could to help people like my dying friends cope with suffering. Related to that was also wanting to make insight available to people regardless of income. I deplore the way institutionalized applications of psychology reinforce classism.

    Further -- compatible with the existential/phenomenological perspective -- I wanted to make the point that death itself obviously isn't something we literally experience personally. It is something we observe. As such, I do not think in day-to-day life that mortality (or any suffering) has to be viewed with the tragic lens Freud insisted upon. I have shocked a lot of clients over the years with my invitation to pick up a comedic lens. Existential theatre of course does that in the exposition of the tragi-comic and black humor. (And it was something I observed in some of my dying friends.)

    Perhaps I need to recognize the difference between living amid explosive, traumatizing pain -- the Holocaust, the early days of AIDS, genocide throughout Africa, Hiroshima -- and coming to personal terms with dying. Those mass events are also about the infliction of suffering. The present moment, when you are surrounded by overwhelming dying and inescapable grief, is hard to appreciate. During the early days of the epidemic, it was virtually impossible for most gay men to live without awaiting the unidentified cause of AIDS to erupt in the body. This is all very different from struggling with existential anxiety in a yoga studio or a therapist's office, isn't it? Maybe I'd just welcome the (fictional?) bliss of effective repression. :)

    Obviously I'm very confused about this subject, but I'm also aware that it's been a topic of great disagreement in both philosophical and psychological discourse. 

  • Fascinating discussion. I don't know Langs' work but the discussion calls to mind Freud's essay on transience and the fictional book "Freud's Requiem," which imagines the discussion with Rilke that inspired the essay. Both the essay and the book go a long way in demonstrating how Freud's own life situation shaped and reshaped his ideas. It's really fascinating to imagine how the notion -- as I understand you -- of necessary repression of death anxiety might be re-enacted and reiterated by psychoanalysts. Does Langs argue that rather than repression, we must somehow resolve our anxiety about death? Is this what you mean?

    As it happens, I went through the early years of the AIDS epidemic and watched friend after friend, including my first partner, die in usually awful circumstances. (I wrote a memoir article about this recently.) It was always my belief during this ordeal that my friends "should" come to terms with the fact of their dying. Quite a few died in amazing denial. Eventually, I wondered why I thought it was so important for them to face the fact of their dying. Others did come to terms with it and they told me remarkable stories of their experiences floating in and out of other worlds, seeing deceased friends, during their process. Was that evidence of an afterlife or of the effect of opiates?

    Other friends chose assisted suicide. This was after their pain became unbearable (as it can in cases of depression). I don't think they necessarily came to terms with their anxiety.

    As it happens, I experienced a classic NDE years ago, just as they were rolling the resuscitation equipment into my hospital room. I didn't talk to anyone about the experience -- it embarrassed me -- for years, until I happened to meet Raymond Moody and read his seminal book on the subject. I will say the experience deeply affected my way of looking at life for years. Then, of course, researchers found that the NDE could be produced by stimulating a certain area of the brain. In other words, it may itself be a neurological, programmed defense against the terror of death.

    I likewise had an experience of leaving my body and watching the drama when I was involved in a horrible traffic accident 10 years ago. I was actually uninjured but I can't help believing that the anticipation of death initiated the experience as a defensive maneuver.

    To add to this tale, I just went through watching my brother endure a week on a resuscitator. He survived but won't for long, since he turns out to have advanced lung cancer. I feel no need to steer him away from his own process. I hope he comes to terms with his dying. It will make ME feel a lot better but I'm not sure how much of a difference it will make to him. "Dying in peace and acceptance" sounds great, but how many people actually get there? Religious conviction of an afterlife produces much the same feeling for many, doesn't it? Consider the Egyptians' romance with death, or Keats' being "half in love with easeful death." Isn't this all still a mechanism of repression?

    I understand that this subject addresses psychic conflict and death anxiety before death becomes literally imminent (although it is always so). But I'm not sure even then that repression isn't the most effective strategy. I can (sort of) agree with Langs' postulate in that most of us survivors of the AIDS epidemic's holocaust years were utterly traumatized by the experience, so that the reality of death is always cruelly present. Because of the nature of HIV's transmission, even lovemaking is haunted by the ghosts of our friends. Nobody talks about this, although many of us have sought treatment for PTSD. It helps but it does not effectively repress OR resolve the overwhelming horror that death became.

    Sorry to go on so long.

    • I at least am glad you "went on so long". You contributed a lot to this discussion.

      Concerning your earlier question, as I understand Langs he thinks denial rather than repression is the primary psychic mechanism associated with psychic conflict, with the seriousness of death anxiety and death related traumas being that which we deny. This is, on the one hand for Langs, an evolutionary development, so we are not overwhelmed by the concern over death. On the other hand, this denial, though helping us survive in one way also brings psychic conflict with it. It sounds like your experience of AIDS patients goes in the same direction. I imagine that Langs would think most talk about the afterlife is also a kind of death denial.

    • One can go through life with a chronic condition I have named NLE (Near Life Experience). In this condition one never quite fully incarnates in this world and the horrible shadow of accident and death stalks one until a choice is made.

      Religion can involve repression of death anxiety it is true yet it's neighbor, Enlivenement (as opposed to Enlightenment) awakens one to the full experience of life and death as expressed so beautifully in the poem by David Wagoner named...

      Salmon Boy.

      That boy was hungry. His mother gave him Dog Salmon,
      Only the head. It was not enough,
      And he carried it hungry to the river's mouth
      And fell down hungry. Salt water came from his eyes,
      And he turned over and over. He turned into it.

      And that boy was swimming under the water
      With his round eyes open. He could not close them.
      He was breathing the river through his mouth.
      The river's mouth was in his mouth. He saw stones
      Shimmering under him. Now he was Salmon Boy.

      He saw the Salmon People waiting. They said, "This water
      Is our wind. We are tired of swimming against the wind.
      Come to the deep, calm valley of the sea.
      We are hungry too. We must find the Herring People."
      And they turned their green tails. Salmon Boy followed.

      He saw Shell-Walking-Backwards, Woman-Who-Is-Half-Stone.
      He heard the long, high howling of Wolf Whale,
      Seal Woman's laughter, the whistling of Sea Snake,
      Saw Loon Mother flying through branches of seaweed,
      Felt Changer turn over far down in his sleep.

      He followed to the edge of the sky where it opens
      And closes, where Moon opens and closes forever,
      And the Herring People brought feasts of eggs,
      As many as stars, and Salmon Boy ate the stars
      As if he flew among them, saying Hungry, Hungry.

      But the Post of Heaven shook, and the rain fell
      Like pieces of Moon, and the Salmon People swam,
      Tasting sweet, saltless wind under the water,
      Opening their mouths again to the river's mouth,
      And Salmon Boy followed, full-bellied, not afraid.

      He swam fastest of all. He leaped in the air
      And smacked his blue-green silvery side, crying, Eyo!
      I jump! again and again. Oh, he was Salmon Boy!
      He could breathe everything! He could see everything!
      He could eat everything! And then his father speared him.

      He lay on the riverbank with his eyes open,
      Saying nothing while his father emptied his belly.
      He said nothing when his mother opened him wide
      To dry in the sun. He was full of the sun.
      All day he dried on sticks, staring upriver.

  • I want to thank you all once again for your contributions. Everything that has been said I have found thought-provoking and conducive to deepening my own understanding of the issues. Without burdening you all with a lot of autobiography, I can say that one reason I found Langs' work on death anxiety persuasive was going back into my own life and noting that the bulk of the events which appear psychologically significant included components of death anxiety, including in areas I didn't at first expect to find it. For example, a good deal of my religious background includes elements of this. Some versions of Christianity have a powerful emphasis on how personal sins "killed" Jesus, bringing with it what Langs terms "predatory death anxiety" with the associated guilt. Lent in fact is a time of year where one often finds statements straightforwardly expressive of these phenomena and which show the extent to which such anxiety can be formative for a person's personality. I just use this as one example of how far-reaching death anxiety of various kinds can be, though there are countless other examples, it seems to me.

    Langs' Freud book was very helpful for me in seeing this broad point. Langs undertakes what he calls "psychoanalytic detective work" whereby he seeks to figure out why Freud changed from the topographical to the structural model of the psyche. This is a problem, Langs thinks, because Freud seems to adduce neither new data nor any specific theoretical problems which would motivate the change. Further, the earlier topographical model, on Langs's account, is more powerful because it highlights a traumatic (though primarily sexual) basis for psychic conflict whereas the structural one tends to treat all conflict as intrapsychic, i.e. not as a reaction based on trying to adapt after real, traumatic events but as more or less purely imaginative sources of psychic conflict.

    While one might debate Langs' reading of Freud here, and some have, what appears crucial to Langs is that Freud originally understood trauma to be the source of psychic conflict whereas the later theory mitigates the force of experienced trauma, in favor of a purely intrapsychic basis of trauma. Langs then adds to Freud's earlier model that the deep underlying trauma is not fundamentally due to issues associated with sexuality but pertains to death anxieties and death related trauma. As I understand him, Langs is not trying to mitigate the significance of sexual or other kinds of trauma but underlining that death anxiety is always a component of significant psychic conflict, even if there are other sources too.

    To justify this point in Freud, then, Langs applies these principles to Freud's own texts, letters and history -- his "psychoanalytic detective work" -- to find whether there are death-related traumas and anxieties which seem to motivate Freud dropping the earlier theory in favor of the later. Personally I found these sections of the book quite gripping, rather like reading a "mystery," but one in which I, as an analyst-in-training, am also implicated, since I am an inheritor of what Freud said and did. Langs definitely finds plausible sources for Freud's own conflicts in death related experiences and adds to the body of literature we have seen since the '70's where people try to understand Freud's work by understanding Freud's psychology.

    Understanding how Langs works can also be a challenge, however, because of his ear for derivatives. While learning how to listen for derivatives was a very important part of learning how to listen analytically at one time, I have the impression -- though I hope I am wrong -- that there is not so much of an emphasis on this anymore in either Freudian or Jungian circles. Much of Langs' ability to justify what he says empirically comes from that particular approach to psychic phenomena and his particular ability to listen for encoded derivatives in a way which plausibly accounts for the given material. There is a lot more that could be said on that issue, but I wanted to mention it in passing as an essential part of Langs' approach.

    I am most likely a less experienced clinician than most of you, but I have certainly found this approach to be clinically valuable, especially with clients who have a robust enough symbolic function that they can consider their deepest traumatic experiences without panic or without acting them out in some way. Have others had any similar experiences?

    • For me there is a connection between separation anxiety and death anxiety. The sexual instinct to unite kicks in strongly, if you look for it, whenever the archetype of death is constellated prematurely.

      So the question for me is always "Do you feel you belong or do you feel abandoned?"   I find the Buddhist philosophy of interbeing helpful here.  A realization of interbeing resolves all anxiety.

    • "I am most likely a less experienced clinician than most of you,"

      Oh John, you're much too modest....Perhaps your clinical time in years may be less, but your time in psyche is clearly deep and rich and drawn from eons and layers of the kind of  encoded derivatives of your own that are  (not necessarily trauma based)  but are naturally given and that I suspect will flower  even more philosophically and creatively over time.   

      • I look forward to looking at the Ann Rice book you suggest. I like the interpretation you give of Jesus. The example I was giving from Christianity was not meant to suggest I think like that at this point, but that at one time in my life it was so. This is one of the ways in which looking at death anxieties seemed to help me clarify how my earlier understanding of religion had inhibited my psychological growth etc. 

        Langs does treat a little of the relationship between Freud and Jung, though more as symptomatic of the general problem of death anxiety in Freud.

        No I am not far enough along to do a thesis yet. I am an analyst candidate but still building up my clinical experience in order to move forward. I only obtained my Masters in counseling this past May, so I still have a long ways to go...

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