Volume 42, 2018
Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
Jens De Vleminck
On Moral Masochism, Melancholia, and the Death Instinct
This paper scrutinizes the concept of ‘moral masochism’ as one of Freud’s most enigmatic concepts. In contrast to Laplanche and Pontalis, who think of moral masochism as an “idea [that] can easily be tied down” (1973: 245), this paper argues that moral masochism is too often reduced to or obscured by related although different concepts, such as ‘the unconscious sense of guilt’ and ‘the negative therapeutic reaction’. In order to clarify the concept of moral masochism, which is defined by Freud as “the most important[,] form assumed by masochism” (1924: 161), we argue that one must take into account that, at this point in Freud’s work, masochism is re-thought from within the context of the melancholic disposition. The latter became of central importance as a prevailing psychopathological ‘research frame’ in Freud’s thinking since Mourning and melancholia (1916-17). The questions put forward in this paper are: What is the relation of moral masochism to the so-called ‘primary, erotogenic masochism’ and to the ‘daemonic’ workings of the death instinct? What is ‘moral’ about moral masochism? Which phenomena Freud is pointing at exactly when he is talking about moral masochism? And, what is both ‘sexual’ and ‘dangerous’ about moral masochism?