From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

Cruelty is a multi-faceted concept in Freud's work. It can relate to actions and motivations but also to agencies, events, or destiny. When Dora (1905e [1901]) abruptly terminated her analysis, Freud mentioned the young girl's "cruel impulses and revengeful motives" (p. 120), which, through Freud in the transference, were directed at Herr K. and through him at her father. This text, written in 1901, contains an implicit question as to whether these impulses originate from the drives or the ego, but also as to the type of person associated with these impulses: in fleeing the transference, did Dora intend to be cruel towards Freud?

An "instinct of cruelty" appears in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). In this work, Freud relates it to male sexuality: the man has a tendency to subjugate in order to overcome "the resistance of the sexual object" (p. 158) and satisfy his sexual urges. Freud states: "There is an intimate connection between cruelty and the sexual instinct" (p. 159). Along with scopophilia and exhibitionism, cruelty is classified as a partial or component drive. Whether active or passive, it also stems from the drive for mastery. Whereas this drive is exerted through the "apparatus for obtaining mastery" (p. 159), connected with the musculature, it is the skin, as the "erotogenic zone par excellence" (p. 169) that constitutes "one of the erotogenic roots of the passive instinct of cruelty" (p. 193). Freud also refers to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's memories of being beaten, which he goes on to discuss further in "A Child is Being Beaten" (1919e).

Like mastery, cruelty involves the use of the object simply as a means of satisfaction. In this sense, it differs from the "sadism proper" (1924c, p. 163) that results from the binding of the drive for cruelty with the sexual drive towards the object. Whereas the drive for cruelty, like the drive for mastery, is characterized by indifference on the part of the subject to the feelings experienced by the object of satisfaction, considered as a part-object, sadism involves a pleasure derived from the object's suffering.

Describing sadism in Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915c) as "the exercise of violence or power upon some other person as object" (p. 127), having also described the drive for cruelty in this way ten years earlier, Freud added: "the sadistic child takes no notice of whether or not it inflicts pain, nor is it part of its purpose to do so" (1915c, p. 128). Thus, strictly speaking, the small child is cruel but not sadistic. This becomes possible only after he has discovered the total object and his ambivalence towards it.

In the same year (1915b), Freud specifically related cruelty to egotism. Intrinsically neither good nor bad, the drives acquire these qualities with regard to the necessary process of civilization. But the child is able to renounce drive gratification because of his need to be loved by his libidinal object. However, the object still remains an unloved and sometimes hated stranger as a direct result of its otherness. Egoistic and cruel impulses resurface and are directed at the object, particularly if the object is generally designated as an enemy. Wounded by these attacks, the object becomes even more frightening.

After the introduction of the death drive in 1920, the drive for cruelty gave way to the "destructive drive," understood as an external deflection of the death drive (1923b) and described as aggressive when directed at objects. If it is taken up by the ego, the ego itself becomes cruel or sadistic. The ego then risks not only losing the object's love but also being subjected to the reprimands of the superego. This agency, which equates with moral conscience, can demonstrate an extreme cruelty, according to the need for aggression aroused by present and past frustrations. Rebellious by nature towards what is nevertheless the necessary process of civilization, the human being is always able to display a "cruel aggressiveness" (1930a, p. 111) if circumstances lend themselves to this.

Melanie Klein substantially developed this concept of cruelty on the part of the superego. In the context of the controversy that pitted her against Anna Freud, she drew attention to the extreme severity of the infantile (or early) superego, even where the parents are conciliatory (1927). The harshness of the agency is proportional to the aggression felt by the child as a result of the frustrations experienced during weaning and toilet training. Thus a cruel superego, "something which bites, devours and cuts" (1928, p. 187) is the outcome of the oral-sadistic and anal-sadistic drives. Taking up Freud's hypothesis concerning the necessary external projection of the death drive, to which the effects of pre-oedipal frustrations are added, Melanie Klein described an extremely cruel child who "attacks its mother's breast" (1933, p. 253), "thinks of sucking out and eating up the inside of its mother's body" (p. 254) and attacks its object with excrements that are "regarded as burning and corroding substances" (p. 253). This intense hostility both from the object and toward it is the product of the deflection of the death drive and past frustrations but also of fears of reprisal for the hostility towards the hated object, ultimately of the influence of the early superego. Thus, "the small child becomes dominated by the fear of suffering unimaginable cruel attacks, both from its real objects and from its super-ego" (p. 251). Although the oedipal phase is influenced by the earlier stages, these destructive rages are tempered with pity and some reparative impulses emerge.

Donald Winnicott (1955/1975) has clearly demonstrated the process of transition from a "pre-ruth era" in which the little child can inadvertently or unintentionally display aggression, since "if destruction be part of the aim in the id impulse, then destruction is only incidental to id satisfaction" (p. 210), to a subsequent stage when the child is concerned about his object. He then has worries about it and is able to feel compassion or potentially creative reparative wishes, which prevents him from remaining cruel toward his object.

Of course, these drives are primitive and potentially cruel toward the object. Throughout his life, the subject will have to find compromises between the claims of the narcissistic pole of his drives and the intensity of his love for the object. However, the object's tolerance of the subject's drive-based egoism varies. In fact, some parents and spouses are better able than others to tolerate narcissistic egocentrism in their child or partner and are accordingly less vulnerable to their "cruelty".

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  2. ——. (1905e). Fragment of an analysis of a case of Hysteria. SE, 7: 1-122.
  3. ——. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.
  4. ——. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.
  5. ——. (1919e). "A child is being beaten": a contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions. SE, 17: 175-204.
  6. ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
  7. ——. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.
  8. ——. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.