Psychological Sublimation

orin scrivello by ellen crenshaw

In psychology, sublimation [suhb-luh-mey-shuhn] is a mature type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are consciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse. Sigmund Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity (indeed, of civilization), allowing people to function normally in culturally acceptable ways.

He defined sublimation as the process of deflecting sexual instincts into acts of higher social valuation, being ‘an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilised life.’ Sublimation is when displacement ‘serves a higher cultural or socially useful purpose, as in the creation of art or inventions.’ Psychoanalysts often refer to it as the only truly successful defense mechanism.

The first thinker to use the word in a psychological sense was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In the opening section of ‘Human, All Too Human’ entitled ‘Of first and last things,’ Nietzsche wrote: ‘There is, strictly speaking, neither unselfish conduct, nor a wholly disinterested point of view. Both are simply sublimations in which the basic element seems almost evaporated and betrays its presence only to the keenest observation. All that we need and that could possibly be given us in the present state of development of the sciences, is a chemistry of the moral, religious, aesthetic conceptions and feeling, as well as of those emotions which we experience in the affairs, great and small, of society and civilization, and which we are sensible of even in solitude. But what if this chemistry established the fact that, even in its domain, the most magnificent results were attained with the basest and most despised ingredients? Would many feel disposed to continue such investigations? Mankind loves to put by the questions of its origin and beginning: must one not be almost inhuman in order to follow the opposite course?’

In Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, erotic energy is allowed a limited amount of expression, owing to the constraints of human society and civilization itself. It therefore requires other outlets, especially if an individual is to remain psychologically balanced. Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into ‘socially useful’ achievements, including artistic, cultural and intellectual pursuits. Freud considered this psychical operation to be fairly salutary compared to the others that he identified, such as repression (holding back thoughts), displacement (redirecting thoughts), denial (rejecting reality), reaction formation (mastering anxiety-producing impulses by exaggeration of the directly opposing tendency), intellectualization (avoiding uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic), and projection (unconsciously rejecting unacceptable attributes by ascribing them to others). In the ‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence’ (1936), his daughter, Anna, classes sublimation as one of the major ‘defence mechanisms’ of the psyche.

Freud got the idea of sublimation whilst reading ‘The Harz Journey’ by Heinrich Heine. The story is about Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach who cut off the tails of dogs he encountered in childhood and later became a surgeon. Freud concluded that sublimation could be observed in an action performed many times throughout one’s life, which firstly appears sadistic, though is ultimately refined into an activity which is of benefit to mankind.

Harry Stack Sullivan, the pioneer of interpersonal psychoanalysis, defined sublimation as the unwitting substitution of a partial satisfaction with social approval for the pursuit of a direct satisfaction which would be contrary to one’s ideals or to the judgment of social censors and other important people who surround one. The substitution might not be quite what we want, but it is the only way that we can get part of our satisfaction and feel secure, too. Sullivan documented that all sublimatory things are more complicated than the direct satisfaction of the needs to which they apply. They entail no disturbance of consciousness, no stopping to think why they must be done or what the expense connected with direct satisfaction would be. In successful sublimation, Sullivan observed extraordinarily efficient handling of a conflict between the need for a satisfaction and the need for security without perturbation of awareness.

Sexual sublimation, also known as sexual transmutation, is the attempt, especially among some religious traditions, to transform sexual impulses or ‘sexual energy’ into creative energy. In this context, sublimation is the transference of sexual energy, or libido, into a physical act or a different emotion in order to avoid confrontation with the sexual urge, which is itself contrary to the individual’s belief or ascribed religious belief. It is based on the idea that ‘sexual energy’ can be used to create a spiritual nature which in turn can create more sensual works, instead of one’s sexuality being unleashed ‘aw.’ The classical example in Western religions is clerical celibacy.

Hasidic Jewish mysticism views sublimation of the animal soul as an essential task in life, wherein the goal is to transform animalistic and earthy cravings for physical pleasure into holy desires to connect with God. Different schools of thought describe general sexual urges as carriers of spiritual essence, and have the varied names of vital energy, vital winds (prana), spiritual energy, ojas, shakti, tummo, or kundalini. It is also believed that undergoing sexual sublimation can facilitate a mystical awakening in an individual.

Carl Jung believed sublimation to be mystical in nature, thus differing fundamentally from Freud’s view of the concept. For Freud, sublimation helped explain the plasticity of the sexual instincts (and their convertibility to non-sexual ends). The concept also underpinned his psychoanalytical theories which showed the human psyche at the mercy of conflicting impulses (such as the super-ego and the id). Jung criticized Freud for obscuring the alchemical origins of sublimation and for attempting instead to make the concept appear scientifically credible: ‘Sublimation is part of the royal art where the true gold is made. Of this Freud knows nothing, worse still, he barricades all the paths that could lead to true sublimatio. This is just about the opposite of what Freud understands by sublimation. It is not a voluntary and forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application, but an alchymical transformation for which fire and prima materia are needed. Sublimatio is a great mystery. Freud has appropriated this concept and usurped it for the sphere of the will and the bourgeois, rationalistic ethos.’

This criticism extends from the private sphere of his correspondence to specific papers he published on psychoanalysis: ‘Freud invented the idea of sublimation to save us from the imaginary claws of the unconscious. But what is real, what actually exists, cannot be alchemically sublimated, and if anything is apparently sublimated it never was what a false interpretation took it to be.’

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s exposition of sublimation is framed within a discussion about the relationship of psychoanalysis and ethics. Lacanian sublimation is defined with reference to the concept ‘Das Ding’ (later in his career Lacan termed this ‘le petit objet a’). Das Ding is the German for ‘the thing’ though Lacan conceives it as an abstract notion and one of the defining characteristics of the human condition. Broadly speaking it is the vacuum one experiences as a human being and which one endeavors to fill with differing human relationships, objects, and experiences all of which serve to plug a gap in one’s psychological needs. For this reason Lacan also considers Das Ding to be a ‘non-Thing’ or ‘vacuole.’ The relationships which one relies on to overcome the vacuity of Das Ding are always insufficient in wholly satisfying the individual.

Lacan considers Das Ding a lost object ever in the process of being recuperated by man. Temporarily the individual will be duped by his or her own psyche into believing that this object, this person or this circumstance can be relied upon to satisfy his needs in a stable and enduring manner when in fact ‘it is in its nature that the object as such is lost. It will never be found again. Something is there while one waits for something better, or worse, but which one wants’ and again ‘[Das Ding] is to be found at the most as something missed. One doesn’t find it, but only its pleasurable associations.’ Human life unravels as a series of detours in the quest for the lost object or the absolute Other of the individual: ‘The pleasure principle governs the search for the object and imposes detours which maintain the distance to Das Ding in relation to its end.’

Lacan’s general formula for sublimation is that ‘it raises an object […] to the dignity of The Thing.’ Lacan considers these objects (whether human, aesthetic, credal or philosophical) to be signifiers which are representative of Das Ding and that ‘the function of the pleasure principle is, in effect, to lead the subject from signifier to signifier, by generating as many signifiers as are required to maintain at as low a level as possible the tension that regulates the whole functioning of the psychic apparatus.’ Furthermore, man is the ‘artisan of his support system,’ in other words, he creates or finds the signifiers which delude him into believing he has overcome the emptiness of Das Ding.

Lacan also considers sublimation to be process of creation ex nihilo (creating out of nothing), whereby an object, human or manufactured, comes to be defined in relation to the emptiness of Das Ding. Lacan’s prime example of this is the courtly love of the troubadours and Minnesänger who dedicated their poetic verse to a love-object which was not only unreachable (and therefore experienced as something missing) but whose existence and desirability also centred around a hole (the vagina). For Lacan such courtly love was a paradigm of sublimation.’ He affirms that the word ‘troubadour’ is etymologically linked to the Provençal verb ‘trobar’ (like the French ‘trouver’) ‘to find.’ If we consider again the definition of Das Ding, it is dependent precisely on the expectation of the subject to re-find the lost object in the mistaken belief that it will continue to satisfy him (or her).

Lacan maintains that creation ex nihilo operates in other noteworthy fields as well. In pottery for example vases are created around an empty space. They are primitive and even primordial artifacts which have benefited mankind not only in the capacity of utensils but also as metaphors of (cosmic) creation ex nihilo. Lacan cites German existentialist Martin Heidegger who situates the vase between the earthly (raising clay from the ground) and the ethereal (pointing upwards to receive). In architecture, Lacan asserts, buildings are designed around an empty space and in art paintings proceed from an empty canvas, and often depict empty spaces through perspective.

In myth, Pan pursues the nymph Syrinx who is transformed into hollow reeds in order to avoid the clutches of the God, who subsequently cuts the reeds down in anger and transforms them into what we today call panpipes (both reeds and panpipes rely on their hollowness for the production of sound). Lacan briefly remarks that religion and science are also based around emptiness. In regard to religion, Lacan refers the reader to Freud, stating that much obsessional religious behavior can be attributed to the avoidance of the primordial emptiness of Das Ding or in the respecting of it. As for the discourse of science this is based on the notion of Verwerfung (the German word for ‘dismissal’) which results in the dismissing, foreclosing or exclusion of the notion of Das Ding presumably because it defies empirical categorization.

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