Freud’s theory of the death drive also gives us a way to think about gender.
Walter Benjamin remarked of the people who experienced the First World War:
A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its center, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body.
What this body could mean was newly in question. Benjamin discusses economic depression, technological innovation, moral uncertainty, and violence, but the First World War also provoked a crisis of masculinity. Men died, were wounded, and later found themselves unemployed in unprecedented numbers. Meanwhile women, as Sarah M Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in No Man’s Land, “seemed to become, as if by some uncanny swing of history’s pendulum, even more powerful.” Tiny fragile human bodies threatened to detach themselves from their traditionally assigned gender roles. At this historical moment, death collided with gender.
Confronted with a profusion of patients shaken by traumatic dreams in the wake of World War I, Sigmund Freud had a theoretical as well as therapeutic problem. He had previously asserted that every dream is the fulfillment of a wish, but the repetition he encountered in traumatic dreams contradicted this claim. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he asked, Why repeat something unpleasurable? Why return to the site of trauma?