Thanatos and Eros in Ender’s Game

15 December 2015 Essay

We started out from the great opposition between the life and death instincts. Now object-love itself presents us with a second example of a similar polarity--that between love (or affection) and hate (or aggressiveness). If only we could succeed in relating these two polarities to each other and in deriving one from the other!

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

In revising his Dreamwork, Freud realized not all dreams could be explained by the libido. He then wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle in which he theorized a second, more primary motive: the death drive, now commonly called thanatos. Considering the roles of the thanatos and eros as instinctual drives provides an excellent tool for understanding human motivations. Applying the theory to fictional characters, if they are well written, can be successful and rewarding. Reading Ender’s Game through this psychoanalytic lens, in the framework of the pleasure principle, we will explore the libido and death drive as experienced by its protagonist, Ender Wiggin. The book can be read as two parts - battle school, where Ender struggles with thanatos, and command school, where he comes to understand eros. For Ender, the final battle is more than an alien conflict, it is the struggle between thanatos and eros. His victory is a result of the influence of both drives, and they can both claim some success in it.

Ender’s Game is a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card that focuses on the lives of a few gifted children as they are manipulated by a military rulership bent on xenocide. Through captured alien (bugger) technology, humans can instantly command starships light years away. Ender and his friends are trained as fleet captains to lead those ships to victory from the safety of earth’s solar system. Realizing the reality of war would be devastating for the children, the battles are presented by the adults as a series of wargames, increasingly difficult battle scenarios they must overcome before they can graduate and command their own fleets. In the final scenario, Ender and his team are presented with an impossible challenge: outnumbered a thousand to one, they must mount an attack on the alien home planet. When Ender successfully completes all the trials, the trick is revealed. He is responsible for the deaths of thousands of human soldiers and for the slaughter of an entire alien species.The war, the trials and the pain and trauma Ender endures have a profound psychological effect.

The book reflects many of Card’s personal ideologies. The influence of his Mormon beliefs are obvious - Ender is a thinly veiled Messianic figure. One of the book's central themes is “love your enemies”. Ender’s mother even quotes from scripture. First conceived in 1977 and expanded into a novel in 1985, the book has plenty to say about Cold War era political regimes. To turn toward the theme of this essay, it would seem that Card was also influenced by contemporary psychoanalytic theory. He makes several references to it in the text: Ender’s sister cautions that their correspondence might be “sikoanalized” (187). Bean understands he can recognize repressed desires in order to avoid them - "maybe knowing about craziness means you don't have to fall for it" (145). The pervading influence of Freud’s dream theory is also evident in the story, as it is in much of pop literature (Walden 1998). Most significant, however, are two names: Valentine, Ender’s sister who represents love, and Eros, the asteroid where Ender completes his training, the military’s strategic command. These conspicuous symbols practically beg for further psychoanalytic inquiry.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalysis provides several useful tools for study of Ender’s Game. Ender and his friends are subjected to traumatic events that shape their character. Evidence of this trauma is seen in Ender’s dreams, and also in the mind game, which can be interpreted as a guided, lucid dream. The symbols Ender encounters in his dreams and the way he deals with them are explained by Freud’s dreamwork. The resolution he achieves as a result of repeated encounters with crises faced in the dream is essentially psychotherapy. His motivation to overcome these challenges is discovered through an understanding of his libido. A brief explanation of these three principles follows.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory aims to understand and explain neuroses based on the following concepts. First, everyone has an Unconscious mental process that influences his conscious thoughts and actions. The Unconscious is formed of repressed thoughts that begin in early childhood with the Oedipus Complex (the natural desire for sons to want to kill their father and marry their mother). Further repression is the result of the restraint of civilized societal pressures (super ego) on the instinctual drives (id), as mediated by the ego. Second, sexual development and libido are key motivators and drive human actions during the process of maturation from youth to adult.

Freud attributes great importance to dreams as a window into unconscious thought. In his own words “the study of dreams may be considered the most trustworthy method of investigating deep mental processes” (7). Latent thoughts are those automatically repressed by the endopsychic censor during the day. Dream-formation occurs as wish fulfillment of these repressed impulses during sleep. Ernest Jones explains “In sleep, the activity of the censor, like that of all other conscious processes, is diminished ... This fact permits the unconscious processes (the latent content) to reach expression in the form of a dream ... in an indirect way” (304). The censor works on the dream-content in two major ways, which together form what is called primary revision. Condensation is the process by which one person or object represents a whole system of issues. Displacement uses a “safe” person or object as a stand-in for someone or something more threatening. Then, through the process of secondary revision, or rationalization, the dream is “assimilated to pre-existing conceptions” which results in the manifest dream-content (297). In Ender’s Game, Card reflects this importance by devoting significant portions of the book to relating Ender’s dreams. The symbols and images in Ender’s dreams offer the reader an insight to his inner conflicts when dreaming becomes his only escape from the daily grind of fight simulation training. Understanding and decompressing this dream-content to reveal (Ender’s) latent dream-thoughts is called dreamwork.

According to Lois Tyson, “Psychoanalysis, as a form of therapy, is the controlled working in and with anxiety” (17). By revisiting the trauma which influences the unconscious, the defensive censor is eroded until it eventually reveals the underlying suppressed thoughts or desires. Once the issue is named, it can be modified. By replaying the mind game over and over, Ender faces that which he does not consciously recognize in himself until finally it is understood and overcome. This therapeutic effect is also used to manipulate him through controlling the content of the game and Ender’s dreams. This is first done by the adults, who want to stimulate his death drive, then by the bugger Queen, who hopes to sway Ender to love.

Commonly called eros, the libidinal drive is “to combine organic substances into ever larger unities” (Freud 37). It is the biological pressure to reproduce, and expanded, the psychic energy that constantly seeks pleasure and wish-fulfilment. In Ender’s Game, the libido is symbolized by Ender’s sister Valentine (love) and by the second half of his training, which takes place on an asteroid named Eros. At the story’s conclusion, Ender’s action toward the Queen solidifies his increasing empathetic capacity.

In opposition to eros is thanatos, the death drive. Freud explores the concept in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. Initially, he had reasoned that “The fulfilment of wishes is, as we know, brought about in a hallucinatory manner by dreams, and under the dominance of the pleasure principle this has become their function” (26). Dreams existed only as wish fulfillment. But he started to question the idea when a number of dreams were studied which could not be explained by eros, specifically recurring traumatic dreams experienced by combat veterans. Freud decided that there must be an ancient biological drive that precedes even eros, one which seeks to return things to their natural, inanimate state. He called this newly discovered instinct “the death drive”. Barbara D’Amato, in exploring aggression in dreams (where Freud started) put it this way: “Aggression is a necessary element in the survival of the species and one that is readily available to individuals whenever they feel threatened. Aggression is a crucial, innate, human and early-human quality without which the human species may have perished long ago. Psychoanalysts call this quality a drive” (197). In Ender, this unconscious motivation to kill is manifested at battle school in his aggression toward his classmates and his enemies in the war game. Through isolation and manipulation of the games, the Generals in command push Ender to accept and utilize his thanatos (as they have seemingly done themselves). He feels they leave him no choice but to fight, even against his wishes. The internal struggle between thanatos and eros determines the outcome of every conflict he faces.

As Freud discovered, the two drives are positioned in opposition to each other. This is represented in the book in several ways. First, Ender’s two siblings, Peter and Valentine, represent hate and love.They are brilliant, but each flawed in their own way. Ender, the Third child, is the government’s special case, in hopes that he will be the best of both elder siblings. He is a mix of Peter’s pure thanatos, and Valentine’s pure eros. Second, the plot is divided into two major sections. At battle school, Ender struggles with his unconscious desire to kill. At command school, he reconciles that urge with a newly developed empathy. Finally, the drives emerge as symbols in Ender’s dreams and in the mind game.

Peter and Battle School

Peter is the living embodiment of Ender’s death drive. He is the oldest (thanatos is a more primary urge than eros), with “the soul of a jackal” (268). He is remorseless in his torment and destruction of others, and devotes time to creative ways to hurt people. Because Ender is the focus of Peter’s anger (jealousy and envy draw Peter to pick on him), Ender (and his sister) have a repressed need to kill Peter for all he has done to them (183). This desire is later manifested when Ender is challenged by the school bully, Stilson. He acts on his unconscious desire and beats him senseless, unintentionally killing him. At this stage of development, his thanatos is in full control, though as we will see again later, it uses the libido’s need for wish-fulfilment to accomplish the urge of death.

Battle School nurtures and trains the death drive. Ender’s unresolved issues with Peter lead to a repeated pattern of behavior: impulsive acts of violence toward those that threaten him like Peter, and test the thanatos. In a shuttle ride, Ender’s classmate Bernard hits him repetitively with a seatbelt. He responds by breaking Bernard’s arm. After being humiliated in battle, Bonzo corners Ender in the showers. Projecting Peter and Stilson on the faces of his aggressors, Ender smashes Bonzo’s face, making his second accidental kill. Though he acts aggressively, Ender feels he has no other choice, and is deeply remorseful after each violent incident, but he has not yet discovered an alternate response. Gross notes that “The most dramatic repression of trauma Ender engages in is his lack of recognition that he killed the two boys he beat in self-defense” (119). Ender still can’t face his killer instinct, his inner Peter. Confronting your thanatos is difficult for anyone, yet “We all have a Peter inside of us, a part of us that is completely self-interested and willing to destroy others to protect these interests” (Decker 29). In this context, Peter would also be Freud’s id, the inner self unhindered by society’s rules. The battle school has few rules, and Ender is never punished for his outbursts, showing that the adults in charge intentionally feed Ender’s urge to kill.

Valentine and Eros

Valentine, as her name implies, is the embodiment of love, eros, Ender’s libido, and the only person Ender can truly love (182). She is the opposite of Peter. Her strength lies in her empathy, “Understanding how people think” (278). The turning point in Ender’s development is a conversation with Valentine. When he begins to recognize his death drive, at the end of battle school, he wants to quit. He refuses to return to school, unable to accept himself as a killer. Through Valentine, he realizes he has another motivation. He wants to save the world for her, for love. Embracing his eros drive becomes key to completing the second half of his training. Card signals this transition by physically moving Ender from the battle school complex, in orbit around Earth, to the distant asteroid symbolically named Eros.

Eros (the asteroid) is rich with feminine symbolism, connecting it further with Valentine and the libido. It has been reclaimed from the buggers who excavated narrow tunnels and caves to inhabit. The environment is uncomfortable for Ender because it reminds him of his mother with whom he has had no contact since age six. Yet, the sense of a regression to the womb reinforces the the importance of a mother’s influence. This is something Ender painfully lacks as he tries to connect with his libido. On Eros, his thanatos will no longer succeed on its own. He must now work with his former schoolmates, guiding the fleet as they command individual squadrons. Initially he is so demanding that some of them burn out. He becomes a compassionate leader, learning to sense the needs of his team. His empathetic urge also gives him a complete understanding of his enemy, which he sees as the ultimate tool for victory. However, as Ender discovers, this intimate understanding is not the comfort his libido desires. Seeing his friends weakened, and his adversaries destroyed brings pain, not satisfaction, to Ender. Despite his progress in embracing the libido, the masochistic thanatos still has measurable influence.

The Mind Game and Dreams

The Mind Game, which Ender experiences at battle school, can be interpreted with Freud’s dreamwork. Studying a waking experience in the context of the dream has been suggested by Daniel Walden: “During sleep ... the tendency is for excitations to originate in the psyche as hallucinatory experiences ... they are experienced by the dreamer as perceptions. These ideas are closely related to current ideas about cinematic viewing” (370) He goes on to explain “As in the state of sleep, the cinematic spectator is relatively immobile, usually in at least relative darkness, and voluntarily regresses to ignore any reality-based perceptions, accepting the cinematic flux as real” (371). The same can be said about video games. The user is in a regressive state, allowing the symbols of the game to become his reality.

For Ender, the game is a sort of psychotherapy, forcing him to confront his anxiety in a safe space and learn to overcome it. For readers, the mind game is an excellent source of psychoanalytic information. The first challenge Ender faces, designed by the adults, is an impassable Giant, who offers an impossible choice - drink from one of two cups, but they both contain poison. The solution is giving in to his death drive: he ignores the cups and attacks the giant. The thanatos wins this round. As Peter says “In the real world, power is always built on the threat of death” (166). Repressing this uncomfortable truth, Ender continues the game, seeking to undo the damage done by killing the Giant. At this point the adults lose control of the game, and struggle to explain its new content. The Queen later reveals she has taken over influence of the game, and stages shift to encourage Ender’s eros. Eventually, he is taken to a high tower with another challenge inside. The phallic symbol of the tower predicts Ender’s move toward libidinal drives. Because has already learned the power of death, Ender’s first instinct is to kill the snake which waits for him inside, which doesn’t work. For a long time, he confuses the snake with Peter, probably not realizing the possible feminine significance of the serpent symbol. He confronts and tries to kill the snake over and over, until (in true psychotherapeutic fashion) he has a breakthrough. Ender does something dramatically different: he kisses it, finally responding with love rather than aggression. The figure morphs into Valentine, who takes him by the hand and leads him symbolically to the next level (of internal development).

As Peter is death, Valentine is the love that conquers it. When Valentine later asks how Ender plans to defeat Peter, he replies “I don’t want to beat Peter. I want him to love me” (283). By confronting his conflict with Peter and death in the game, facing his anxieties, he overcomes them and transforms his suppressed urge of death and killing into love and acceptance. In this example, the libidinal drive surpasses the death instinct. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud struggles with this idea. He argues that in maturity, the death drive is, if anything, in service to the superior libidinal drive. But the end of the work raises the opposite possibility: the life instincts disturb, while the death instinct is “unobtrusive. The pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts” (69). While the libido disrupts daily activity, unconsciously influencing daily life with its need for wish-fulfilment, thanatos waits patiently. Perhaps knowing that the ultimate wish is the return to nothing, it is content to let the libido try to accomplish that end. It seems likely then that both drives will use the other to further their own ends, and this interplay is obvious in Ender.

When Ender moves to command school, he dreams so much during the night that he becomes afraid of even his own dreams. His latent thoughts manifest as Stilson and Bonzo and Peter condensed into one bully that kicks and beats him until he surrenders. Ender is repressing the impending potential for failure in his new position, and senses he is on the verge of defeat. Wish-fulfilment translates this fear in his dream as old enemies, who have come back to finish him off. He is defenseless, the traumatic repressed fear of isolation and abandonment becoming a visceral, unrelenting enemy. This recurring traumatic dream is a good example of the kind Freud noticed that had no net positive effect on the psyche, and therefore could not be fully explained by the pleasure principle alone. Just as Freud would have, Ender has difficulty understanding the source of these painful nightmares. He doesn’t realize the Queen is again influencing his mind. By presenting him with inescapable defeat, she is hoping to convince him to relent from his ceaseless cycle of destruction (and save her race).

Love vs. Death

The ultimate conclusion, Ender’s final test, is now a result of the ongoing struggle of his drives. Through the mind game he has come to recognize his death instinct for what it is. Through Valentine’s love he receives the empathy he needs to be an effective commander, one that is as insightful of his enemy as he is of his friends:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them, I destroy them.

Ender Wiggin

Worn down by weeks of battle simulations, and facing impossible odds, Ender is now forced to rely on his instincts to succeed. As if to make it more obvious, he forms his forces into a long, phallic bullet and thrusts directly at the bugger homeworld. At the last second, he fires the particle beam, destroying the planet. The result is complete victory, but also complete annihilation of the buggers. Now death has put love in its service. Ender has eliminated the bugger menace, but he is still a long way from resolving his inner battle. Thanatos has carried out its wish once more. If we stopped here, it would be safe to say death had won. But eros has a trick up its sleeve.

At the end of the story, influenced by the Queen, Ender discovers a hidden reliquary on a distant planet, disguised in ruins built to resemble the tower from the mind game. It holds the last egg of the bugger species. In the alien confrontation that follows, the Queen explains telepathically how she had manipulated Ender across time and space through his thoughts and dreams. Now, directly accessing his mind, she gains a greater understanding of human thought and motivation. Knowing the instinctual drives, she forgives Ender and the humans for their exterminating act. Speaking for eros, she tells him murder is not in his heart, but that he was manipulated by the adults to feed his death drive. The queen’s unflinching love becomes Ender’s motivation. To undo what he has done, to seek justice for the buggers, he becomes Speaker for the Dead, travelling and mourning all death, and becoming a conduit for healing to those affected wherever he goes. Eventually he hopes to find a new planet where the bugger egg can grow into a new colony. In this pursuit, seeking a place to start new life, he is motivated by his guilt of xenocide, his love for Valentine and the Queen, and his desire to conquer death.