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Death —
and the Seduction of Despair



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Page Contents: A Round-about Beginning / Introduction / Repetition / The Beginning / Repetition Revisited / Rebirth



A WORK OF LITERATURE can often reveal deep psychological truths even though the author may receive satisfaction from the writing without fully understanding its psychological implications. And even though school teachers and university professors may delight in asking their students to explain what the author “really meant,” no one can ever know with any certainty what was going on in the author’s mind.

In this regard, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a fascinating short story, The Purloined Letter, a story of intrigue and desperation.

The intrigue begins with a Queen watching helplessly in horror while a royal Minister steals an incriminating letter of hers—right under her nose, and in the very presence of the King—for purposes of blackmail. The story unfolds as the hero, Dupin, manages in turn to steal the letter from the Minister and hand it over to the Prefect of police—for a hefty fee, of course—when the police fail in their own attempts to locate this “purloined” letter the Queen so desperately wants back in her possession.




As I said before, it’s anyone’s guess how much Poe understood the unconscious psychology of his characters and their predicaments. Nevertheless, the story has profound psychological implications—which lift it well above a mere detective story—or I wouldn’t have spent so much time introducing it here.

Brilliantly explained by Jacques Lacan in his “Seminar on The Purloined Letter,” these psychological implications not only touch on the Freudian concept of repetition but they also apply to the topic of this page: Death—and the Seduction of Despair.




Lacan uses Poe’s text to help explain the repetition automatism (Wiederholungszwang) described by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theories.


What is repetition? Well, consider the person who keeps picking abusive “lovers,” or the person who starts projects and never finishes them. Neither of these persons is likely to be deliberately seeking failure and pain, so we speculate that they are stuck in a rut that leads them round and round to repeat some unconscious desire. Freud simply set about trying to understand the nature of this helpless bondage to repeated anguish.


Lacan’s argument in his seminar centers on the role of the signifier in the act of repetition. A signifier, he says, is “by nature” a “symbol only of an absence.” Jacques LacanThat is, the signifier represents for us something else, something not immediately present; as such, the signifier isn’t important in itself—it’s valuable only for what it represents. Words are signifiers, and words are composed of letters, and voilà, Poe’s story is about a letter. A letter which signifies quite a bit. As the Prefect of police describes it, “the disclosure of the document to a third person, who shall be nameless, would bring in question the honor of a personage of most exalted station.” Or, in language less diplomatic than that of the Prefect, it would be the death of the Queen if the King found out.

Hence, as Lacan further notes, in being a symbol of an absence, the signifier “materializes the agency of death.” Think about that. What is always missing from life and yet always present? Death. Thus every signifier essentially hides death from us while at the same time displaying it prominently in front of us.

Is it any wonder then, that the story of this unfortunate purloined letter, so intimately connected with the threat of death, should also be so intimately connected with its being repetitively hidden in plain view?

Thus we have the two themes of Lacan’s Seminar, two themes of Poe’s story, and the subject of this page: death, and its being repetitively hidden as we frantically seek to display the vain psychological defenses of life.




Before leaving Lacan’s Seminar and Poe’s “letter,” let’s note one final and very important point about the theft of the letter in the first place. Lacan describes this theft as an operation, as if the psychology of the theft were analogous to a mathematical procedure. Why? Because in stealing the letter the Minister substitutes another letter of his own, a letter that, once left behind, becomes worthless. As such, this second letter can be thought of as a remainder to the initial operation, a letter “abandoned by the Minister, and which the Queen’s hand is now free to roll into a ball.” In her anger and frustration, the “remainder” is nothing but trash.

So why have I called this section “The Beginning”?

Well, here we have, displayed right before us, the beginning trauma of all life. Our conception.

This might not seem like much to you, but consider how you were conceived. How we all were conceived. Through the passion of our parents, sperm and egg came together to form a beginning embryo. Notice well: an embryo. To your parents, at your conception, you were not “you.” You were not a “special” person. No, nothing of the sort. Whoever you are, whatever you think you are, however you want to be seen in this world—none of this mattered to your parents. All they knew was the passion of their desire. 

Your parents’ desire may have been the desire for nothing more than the physical pleasure of the moment, of which conception was—to use the terminology of scientific medicine—just a “side effect.” [1] Thus you find your life stained by the reality of being an “accident.”

Or your parents’ desire may have been the fully-planned desire to have a baby. But, again, note well: a baby. If your parents wanted a baby, they knew—and wanted—nothing of you as a person; they just wanted “a baby.”

To the sexual operation which created you, therefore, you—whether your conception was planned or unplanned, and despite all your longing for a special identity—are nothing but a remainder.

And herein lies all the desperation that life is heir to, because, once born, each child will spend the remainder of its life hiding this unwanted reality from itself.

We will waste our lives seducing our despair.




At the end of his seminar, Lacan says that “a letter always arrives at its destination.” Well, this may not be exactly true in today’s world regarding letters delivered by the local post office, but it is true in regard to letters—signifiers—in the unconscious. A signifier always arrives at its unconscious destination. And here is where death and repetition are joined. For there is always one dark part of the unconscious—call it an “ego state”—which knows the truth about the worthlessness of its own social identifications. And no matter how much we may employ our vain defenses to hide our despair about the emptiness of social constructs, everything comes back to this part which “knows.”

And what exactly does it know? It “knows” death. It knows the haunting reality that stands before us all with the power to wipe away in an instant everything we think we are. And, for children of dysfunctional families, it knows the unspoken but constant thought that dances though their heads: “You don’t deserve to live and so it would be better for others if you were dead.”

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

—Robert Frost

The secret—this ugly treasure of a dark ego state—sits quietly as our defenses dance round it in repetitive, unwitting homage.

From this dark place, therefore, come all addictions. All the alcohol and drugs, all the gambling, all the cigarettes, all the sports, all the shopping, all the fashion, all the television, all the entertainment, all the gluttony, all the sex that masquerades as love—all the perversions—come from this place as a way, like a vampire, to suck vicarious life from the world around you.

From this dark place comes all prejudice, as a way to puff up your own value by demeaning others.

From this dark place comes the urge to respond to hurt and insult with pride and revenge, as a way to hurt others as you have been hurt.

From this dark place comes the urge to savor the taste of death by taking risks. The thrill of an adrenaline “rush” or the social “status” of making yourself seen as a rebel serves as a flash of illusion to hide your own dark emptiness—or, in the case of adolescents, the spiritual emptiness of your family.

From this dark place comes the sly grin of disobedience, as a way to scorn the world that scorns your humanity when you are made into a mere pawn of consumerism.

From this dark place comes the preoccupation with medical problems (as in Somatization Disorder and Hypochondriasis). The constant attention you receive through medical treatment becomes a way to fill up the emptiness of feeling that you “shouldn’t be alive.” But as long as your inner despair remains unconscious—and untreated psychologically—all the time and money spent on medical care is like pouring water into a sieve.

From this dark place comes all masochistic self-sabotage, whereby you manage to mess things up just as you have the chance to succeed. You procrastinate, you miss a deadline, you fail to follow directions, you get lost on the way to an appointment, you forget to mail an important letter, and so on.

From this dark place comes the impulse to self-mutilation.

From this dark place comes all suicide.


Consider a woman despairingly pregnant with a child she, or the father, doesn’t want. Right in the womb that developing fetus will be “infected” psychologically with the belief that “It would be better if you were dead.”

Or maybe a woman is too emotionally immature to attend to her infant’s needs. As that infant struggles with the dark terror of its neglect, it will be “infected” psychologically with the belief that “It would be better if you were dead.”

Or maybe the child is a living “accident,” the unanticipated result of raw sexual pleasure stripped of any responsibility to reproduction. As that child struggles with lonely isolation, it will be “infected” psychologically with the belief that “It would be better if you were dead.”

Or maybe the child suffers the daily reality of child abuse. The abuse can amplify the belief that you are nothing but “garbage” to be used for someone’s sexual pleasure—a piece of flesh to be used and then discarded like trash. The usual unconscious psychological defense against this despair is to actually make yourself into a piece of sexual garbage. Think about it. Most prostitutes were sexually abused as children. Does that say enough?


Yes, the secret sits in the middle and knows. And a dark part of us cries out in pain as the seduction of our despair—ceaselessly and repetitively—returns unto it.


Sigmund FreudIn his later writing, Sigmund Freud theorized about a death instinct (also referred to as a death wish), which has some remote similarity to what I’m describing here.

Many psychoanalysts after Freud have used the term thanatos (which in Greek mythology refers to death personified) to describe this “instinct,” but Freud never liked the term, nor did he ever provide another name for it. Moreover, concerned as he was with reducing religion to sexuality and biology, he could have never grasped the concept of rebirth which transcends all sexuality.





From the eyes of this dark ego state, then, the pain of insignificance and meaninglessness can be answered only with self-destruction. And, if you don’t understand to the very depths of your heart the nature of this blind despair you will be wretchedly caught in its endless repetition.

There are no social or political organizations you can join, nations to which you can avow citizenship, cultures in which you can take pride, languages you can speak, or identifications in which you can dress yourself that have the power to free you from this shadowy despair.

You can’t buy your release with wealth, seize it with power, or seduce it with romance.

The only solution is to recognize—and accept—that there is no humanistic solution. In our basest reality, we are just alimentary canals encased in flesh-covered skeletons, and it’s useless to make a fetish of the body because it’s impossible to find mystical meaning in the biological/sexual functions of body. We were conceived through petty desire, and, left to ourselves, in the midst of empty social constructs, we are nothing but objects to be used and manipulated by the social world around us.

But that is not the end of the story.

If you choose to believe it, each of us has a soul that, by the grace of pure, selfless love, is unique. And it does mean something—not to the social world, but to love itself. And so, despite death and despair, we have the choice of rebirth, a new “birth” of meaning and purpose that are not structured in vain self-satisfaction but in a humble letting go of obsession with the self.

C. G. JungThe concept of rebirth has been a part of religion for ages. It even entered into psychology through Joseph Campbell Carl Jung’s research into religion and alchemy. But the problem with Jung’s ideas—and with his followers such as Joseph Campbell—is that no matter which path to psychological “rebirth” is pointed out, no matter which myth is laid out on the table with all the other myths, they are all nothing but human signifiers, each one as empty as the one lying next to it.

All these myths make one grave mistake. All these myths hold out the lie that you can find value in life by seeking it through your own psychology. 

True rebirth demands something more than psychology and more than myth. It demands “death”: death of all self-importance, death of all we “think” we are, death of all pride in our illusory identities. It is the death described so well through the ages by religious mystics such as Saint John of the Cross.[2,3] It is the death of all attempts to seduce your despair.

From this death comes spiritual healing, the end to all the frantic defenses against your vulnerability and the beginning of the acceptance of vulnerability itself as the very strength of real love. It’s a rebirth into honest humility, the only path that leads to meaningful life, mental health, and genuine religion.


You might ask, “Can this be done without becoming a hermit, or ascetic? Can one continue to conduct business, or other worldly activities without the desire for self-satisfaction?” Well, yes it can be done. In short, it means that you do everything you can to develop your talents as fully as possible, but that you put those talents to use in service to others, not for the sake of your own personal pleasure, wealth, status, honor, or prestige.


And, sadly enough, all those who haven’t learned this lesson—even the most outwardly religious of us still trapped in false spirituality—will fall, time and time again, into the hands of that dark ego state in which we, like a useless letter, are rolled angrily into a ball of trash.




Psychology from the Heart
The Spiritual Depth of Clinical Psychology

A collection of texts from the writings of
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.

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1. And, if you have been graced with the life and intelligence to be able to read this, be grateful that your mother did not have an abortion to get rid of you, the fetus whom she could have perceived at the time as a mere unwanted medical nuisance.
2. St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991).
3. St. John of the Cross, “The Dark Night.” In The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991).

Additional Resources
Lacan’s Seminar on The Purloined Letter
The Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis  in the San Francisco Bay area, offers training in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies  provides lectures and information about Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The Purloined Letter:
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, from The Literature Network.
St. John of the Cross:
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Depression and Suicide
Identity and Loneliness
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Sexuality—and Love
Spiritual Healing
Terrorism and Psychology
The Unconscious
Treatment Philosophy
INDEX of all subjects on this website
SEARCH this website


A Guide to Psychology and its Practice



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