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This article is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

The Compulsion to Return Desmond Avery
How Three Memoirs Shed Light on Human Motivation

When Freud was sixty-four, he wondered why the urge to maximise pleasure often seemed to be overridden by an urge to repeat past experience.1 It could have been his time in life that led him to that awareness: with more years spent than I have left to spend, and with body parts past their best-before date, my motivation is not based as self-evidently as it used to be on my prospects for physical pleasure. A return to earlier experiences, even if they offered only distress, could be an instinctive way to go into reverse instead of speeding straight ahead to my annihilation. Freud does not directly adduce first-hand bio-data of this kind, plentiful, accessible and credible though such evidence normally is, and partly for that reason the memoirs we will be looking at here may shed more light on his question than his own genre of the specialist scientific paper. He was a master of speculative theory though, and in that way his essay of 1920 provides us with a good starting point for our own questioning of human motivation.

His evidence of a purpose other than pleasure includes veterans’ recurring dreams of traumatic events ‘in the recent terrible war’, children’s eagerness to repeat games and stories over and over again with no variation, irrespective of happy endings, and some men’s tendency to go from one relationship to another instinctively causing each of them to break down in the ...
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