Pleasure Principle

Three women running
Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash

Freud’s essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” my analyst says, tells us something troubling about the pursuit of happiness. But, he says, once I know what it is, I’ll never be able to unknow it. “Do you want to know what it is?” he asks, excitedly. “Do you really want to know?”


Out with my running group, the 37-year-old woman running next to me shares her secret, easily, in the intimate space of strangers who have just met. “I’m not sure I want a child with my husband,” she laughs.

To be tethered to a man via a child, we both know, is to be captive in a way. She is uncertain she wants the tug of that connection; though both she and I would admit there is also pleasure in the idea of being caught, to be called mother, wife, a woman in a determined place.


The 37-year-old woman tells me she doesn't believe I am 43. I look younger than my years, childless as I am. This observation brings me both pleasure and pain.

When you’re feeling the pain of sadness, some people say talk to yourself as you would a child, softly, sweetly, but I don't know what pleasure a child takes in being lied to, so I tell the child I didn't have that her not-father was a difficult man. He said to have a child is to guarantee its suffering and that this—the giving of pain—was something he would never do.

When I argued that life is a mix of pain and pleasure, always the two, never just the one, he dismissed me. I thought myself able to give pleasure to a child, to strengthen it against the inevitability of life’s pain, but he said I only wanted to follow a script, be caught by the status quo, that I was hopelessly naïve about what would bring me happiness.

He was cruel, but I choose instead to remember him as a child, in pain. If I could have, I would have given him pleasure.


The woman running with me understands how I misdirect my pain to blame him. We know the truth. She is uncertain her husband is a worthy man and I am older than I look.

To tell a stranger a secret is a pleasure, though in this case the truth causes us both pain. I wish I didn't tell this secret so easily. I take no pleasure in telling you. No, that’s not true, both she and I are laughing.


The analyst says the point of Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is in its description of a repetition compulsion. We hold psychic tension, feel displeasure as a result, and so we work to release it, only to find that the tension builds again. There is no stability to be found in this system. Perfect happiness? That’s an illusory fiction. He laughs. “This is why they don’t invite me on the news.”

He deals in the painful truth, but clearly takes pleasure in delivering it. Maybe that’s him speaking to me (himself?) as a child?

There was a time when I thought I would grow up to be something more certain: a wife, a mother. Now, I am tender toward confused women, myself. When we share our secrets, I know it won’t satisfy my pain, but it feels like pleasure to tell her.

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