On Sublimation: A Path to the Destiny of Desire, Theory, and Treatment

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This book explores and revisits the concept of sublimation, in its various aspects and implications that it has in theory and clinical psychoanalysis, and also in its broader socio-cultural aspects. The basic assumption that aroused the author's interest in the topic is a certain surprise in observing how sublimation in psychoanalysis is in general spoken about less in contemporary discourse: so is it an outdated concept, an endangered species? Does it belong to the archaeology of psychotherapy? Or, on the contrary, is it so much a part of analytical practice and so well established and implicit in theory that it is not necessary to discuss it any more? It is the prevailing opinion of the author that sublimation is nowadays expressed differently and has undergone a sort of anthropological mutation, as has happened to several Freudian concepts with the changing historical and cultural contexts.The present book looks at sublimation from various angles: it takes you through the history of the concept, its birth with Freud and post-Freudian development; its implications and controversies in psychoanalytic theory and in the idea itself of psychoanalytic treatment; and its central role in creativity and art, exploring for example the "great" successful sublimations of Leonardo da Vinci and Emily Dickinson.At the heart of the book is contemporaneity and its contradictions: what is the place of sublimation in today's so-called 'postmodern' or hypermodern culture? The question, according to the author, is neither an idle one nor mere speculation: the existence of sublimation does not just coincide with the same psychoanalytic theory as Freud thought but also involves the destiny itself of contemporary man, his chances of survival and of living psychically, not squashed into consumerism, in the immediate satisfaction of his needs, or staying with the reassurance of gregariousness and the masses. The central thesis of this book is that sublimation and creativity, even in the most personal and minimal of forms, are essential to psychic life and to subjectivity. Despite this, as the book suggests in its conclusion, Freud himself thought that sublimation was never, due to its nature, complete: there will always be a 'scrap', a gap, something which is missing, as the human subject is pushed, throughout life, to the satisfaction of the drive.So today the contemporary cultural climate helps impoverish our capacity for sublimation because of the changed cultural scene, compared to the early 1900s, whilst the Freudian concept of sublimation is more than ever current and necessary. In the author's opinion, in both psychoanalytical theory and practice, this subject must be recaptured and reenergized, as a completely modern concept as well as being crucial to the very survival of psychoanalysis.

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Chapter One - Has sublimation disappeared? The destiny of a fundamental concept

ePub

The permanent success of psychoanalysis depends on the coincidence of two issues: the obtaining of satisfaction by the release of tension, and sublimation of the sheer instinctual drive. If we generally succeed only with the former, that is to be attributed to a great extent to the human raw material—human beings who have been suffering severely for a long time and expect no moral elevation from the physician, and are often inferior material. In your case they are young persons faced with conflicts of recent date, who are personally drawn towards you and ready for sublimation, and to sublimation in its most comfortable form, namely the religious. (…) But you are in the fortunate position of being able to lead them to God (…). For us this way of disposing of the matter does not exist. Our public, no matter of what racial origin, is irreligious, we are generally thoroughly irreligious ourselves and, as the other ways of sublimation which we substitute with religious are too difficult for most patients, our treatment generally results in the seeking out of satisfaction.

 

CHAPTER ONE Has sublimation disappeared? The destiny of a fundamental concept

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CHAPTER ONE

Has sublimation disappeared? The destiny of a fundamental concept

The permanent success of psychoanalysis depends on the coincidence of two issues: the obtaining of satisfaction by the release of tension, and sublimation of the sheer instinctual drive. If we generally succeed only with the former, that is to be attributed to a great extent to the human raw material—human beings who have been suffering severely for a long time and expect no moral elevation from the physician, and are often inferior material. In your case they are young persons faced with conflicts of recent date, who are personally drawn towards you and ready for sublimation, and to sublimation in its most comfortable form, namely the religious.

(…) But you are in the fortunate position of being able to lead them to God (…). For us this way of disposing of the matter does not exist. Our public, no matter of what racial origin, is irreligious, we are generally thoroughly irreligious ourselves and, as the other ways of sublimation which we substitute with religious are too difficult for most patients, our treatment generally results in the seeking out of satisfaction.

 

CHAPTER TWO History of the concept of sublimation, from Freud to the present day: a brief literary review

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CHAPTER TWO

History of the concept of sublimation, from Freud to the present day: a brief literary review

T

o paraphrase Green, in The Work of the Negative (1999), in truth, sublimation guarantees nothing, protects one against nothing.

It simply permits one to find satisfaction “differently” in a common sharing of emotions, creating a special realm of “civilised” relations, but which have no power to suppress other forms of much cruder satisfactions. The power of its “objectalising” function may enable us to be accompanied throughout life by a few loved objects which have the advantage over others of remaining faithful since they can only disappear if we abandon them.

Before considering the heart of drive dynamics and how these new loved objects are born, which sublimation invents for us and which would guarantee for us a reassuring faithfulness, we need to take a step back to review the history of the concept itself. Is it Freud who first talks about it (from an initial mention in his Letter to Fliess all the way to Dora)? Or had the idea of the existence of a sublimation of the drives already appeared in the history of thought? Certainly, as for other concepts which are not alien to the cultural heritage of philosophy or even of literature (if once thinks of the concept of the unconscious), Freudian psychoanalysis is the first to give it a rigorous

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Chapter Two - History of the concept of sublimation, from Freud to the present day: a brief literary review

ePub

To paraphrase Green, in The Work of the Negative (1999), in truth, sublimation guarantees nothing, protects one against nothing. It simply permits one to find satisfaction “differently” in a common sharing of emotions, creating a special realm of “civilised” relations, but which have no power to suppress other forms of much cruder satisfactions. The power of its “objectalising” function may enable us to be accompanied throughout life by a few loved objects which have the advantage over others of remaining faithful since they can only disappear if we abandon them.

Before considering the heart of drive dynamics and how these new loved objects are born, which sublimation invents for us and which would guarantee for us a reassuring faithfulness, we need to take a step back to review the history of the concept itself. Is it Freud who first talks about it (from an initial mention in his Letter to Fliess all the way to Dora)? Or had the idea of the existence of a sublimation of the drives already appeared in the history of thought? Certainly, as for other concepts which are not alien to the cultural heritage of philosophy or even of literature (if once thinks of the concept of the unconscious), Freudian psychoanalysis is the first to give it a rigorous theoretical system and to try to put it in an organic frame within the theory of the drives.

 

CHAPTER THREE Sublimation in psychoanalytic theory

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CHAPTER THREE

Sublimation in psychoanalytic theory

These impulses in themselves are neither good nor bad. We classify them and their expression in that way, according to their relation to the needs and demands of the human community. It must be granted that all the impulses which society condemns as evil—let us take as representative the selfish and the cruel ones—are of this primitive kind. These primitive impulses undergo a lengthy process of development before they are allowed to become active in the adult. They are inhibited, directed towards aims and fields, become commingled, alter their object, and are to some extent turned back upon their possessor. Reaction-formation against instincts take the deceptive form of a change in their content, as though egoism had changed into altruism, or cruelly into pity.

—Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on

War and Death”, 1915b, p. 280

A

difficult passage now awaits us, one that I will try not to make even more obscure. What position, above all today, does sublimation occupy in psychoanalytic theory? What contradictions, if any, has it thrown up, or that we can discern? Are these contradictions

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Chapter Three - Sublimation in psychoanalytic theory

ePub

These impulses in themselves are neither good nor bad. We classify them and their expression in that way, according to their relation to the needs and demands of the human community. It must be granted that all the impulses which society condemns as evil—let us take as representative the selfish and the cruel ones—are of this primitive kind. These primitive impulses undergo a lengthy process of development before they are allowed to become active in the adult. They are inhibited, directed towards aims and fields, become commingled, alter their object, and are to some extent turned back upon their possessor. Reaction-formation against instincts take the deceptive form of a change in their content, as though egoism had changed into altruism, or cruelly into pity.

Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, 1915b, p. 280

A difficult passage now awaits us, one that I will try not to make even more obscure. What position, above all today, does sublimation occupy in psychoanalytic theory? What contradictions, if any, has it thrown up, or that we can discern? Are these contradictions and ambiguities—left relatively unanswered—which have caused the criticism and, today, the disinterest with which we opened the first chapter, and whose study is the subject of this book? And so on.

 

CHAPTER FOUR Sublimation in treatment: the end analysisand the “transformation of the aim”

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CHAPTER FOUR

Sublimation in treatment: the endanalysis and the “transformation of the aim”

Sublimation is a fantastic pleasure but also a fantastic privilege.

Sublimation is living in heaven with the permission of your conscience. But the price of this sublimation, this acting out, is the absence of self-understanding or even of the desire for it. […] Some people have declared that if artists were analyzed they would stop being artists. I disagree. […] Ignorance is bliss, but its ransom is to keep you a prisoner of your own fears.

—Louise Bourgeois, 19931

F

reud is the first to caution against both an excess of optimism in sublimation, as well as to seek it too actively in treatment. This passage, from 1912, merits being quoted in full here:

Not every neurotic has a high talent for sublimation; one can assume of many of them that they would not have fallen ill at all if they had possessed the art of sublimating their instincts. If we press them unduly towards sublimation and cut them off from the most accessible and convenient instinctual satisfactions, we shall usually make life even harder for them than they feel it in any case. As a

 

Chapter Four - Sublimation in treatment: the end-analysis and the “transformation of the aim”

ePub

Sublimation is a fantastic pleasure but also a fantastic privilege. Sublimation is living in heaven with the permission of your conscience. But the price of this sublimation, this acting out, is the absence of self-understanding or even of the desire for it. […] Some people have declared that if artists were analyzed they would stop being artists. I disagree. […] Ignorance is bliss, but its ransom is to keep you a prisoner of your own fears.

Louise Bourgeois, 19931

Freud is the first to caution against both an excess of optimism in sublimation, as well as to seek it too actively in treatment. This passage, from 1912, merits being quoted in full here:

Not every neurotic has a high talent for sublimation; one can assume of many of them that they would not have fallen ill at all if they had possessed the art of sublimating their instincts. If we press them unduly towards sublimation and cut them off from the most accessible and convenient instinctual satisfactions, we shall usually make life even harder for them than they feel it in any case. As a doctor, one must above all be tolerant to the weakness of a patient, and must be content if one has won back some degree of capacity for work and enjoyment for a person even of only moderate worth. Educative ambition is of as little use as therapeutic ambition. It must further be borne in mind that many people fall ill precisely from an attempt to sublimate their instincts beyond the degree permitted by their organization and that in those who have a capacity for sublimation the process usually takes place of itself as soon as their inhibitions have been overcome by analysis. In my opinion, therefore, efforts invariably to make use of the analytic treatment to bring about sublimation of instinct are, though no doubt always laudable, far from being in every case advisable. (1912e, p. 119)

 

Chapter Five - Sublimation and creativity

ePub

There is always something missing that torments me

Camille Claudel, 1886.1

And for several years I was almost mad—that was the time when the terror of insanity reared up its twisted head

Edvard Munch.2

We now return to the relationship between sublimation and creativity. This relationship appears to be well known and well established in practice and theory, and much has been written on the subject, so I will not go into too much detail, and yet it does not fail to arouse, in me at least, a sense of fascination and mystery. The fact that sublimation is above all a characteristic of the artist, and artists are so often borderline subjects, who suffer, whose equilibrium is almost always played out on the thin line between psychosis and perversion, testimony to the mystery of human creativity. We have seen how, in art, creativity essentially represents the transformation of a trauma, an early and unconscious one (Lowenfeld, 1941), a trauma that cannot be elaborated in a different way: either it is sublimated or it will often manifest itself in mental illness.

 

CHAPTER FIVE Sublimation and creativity

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CHAPTER FIVE

Sublimation and creativity

There is always something missing that torments me

—Camille Claudel, 1886.1

And for several years I was almost mad—that was the time when the terror of insanity reared up its twisted head

—Edvard Munch.2

W

e now return to the relationship between sublimation and creativity. This relationship appears to be well known and well established in practice and theory, and much has been written on the subject, so I will not go into too much detail, and yet it does not fail to arouse, in me at least, a sense of fascination and mystery.

The fact that sublimation is above all a characteristic of the artist, and artists are so often borderline subjects, who suffer, whose equilibrium is almost always played out on the thin line between psychosis and perversion, testimony to the mystery of human creativity. We have seen how, in art, creativity essentially represents the transformation of a trauma, an early and unconscious one (Lowenfeld, 1941), a trauma that

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Chapter Six - The impossible desire: great sublimation in art—Leonardo da Vinci according to Freud and Emily Dickinson

ePub

Creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which we have not yet opened up for science. If only this support given by writers in favour of dreams having a meaning were less ambiguous!

Freud, 1907a, p. 8

Rather than to philosophers and certainly far more than to the medicine of his time, Freud felt he owed a debt of gratitude to poets alone; they are the “creative writers” of the passage from “Gradiva”, they alone possess the keys to the realm of the psyche, of the dream, and of human mystery. Actually, the poets got there first; we have transformed into science, translated into methodology the grammar of the unconscious, but for the poet it is pure intuition, perhaps something akin to what Bion calls preconception. We have seen in the previous chapter what happens when sublimation is partial, fragile, a source of creativity but contiguous to pathological instances, and almost inseparable from them. However, so-called pure sublimations do exist—and they are the rarest—those which in “Leonardo” Freud defined as the “third type”, whereby “…the libido evades the fate of repression by being sublimated from the very beginning into curiosity and by becoming attached to a powerful instinct for research as a reinforcement” (1910c, p. 79).

 

CHAPTER SIX The impossible desire: great sublimationin art—Leonardo da Vinci according to Freud and Emily Dickinson

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CHAPTER SIX

The impossible desire: great sublimation in art—Leonardo da Vinci according to

Freud and Emily Dickinson

Creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which we have not yet opened up for science. If only this support given by writers in favour of dreams having a meaning were less ambiguous!

—Freud, 1907a, p. 8

R

ather than to philosophers and certainly far more than to the medicine of his time, Freud felt he owed a debt of gratitude to poets alone; they are the “creative writers” of the passage from

“Gradiva”, they alone possess the keys to the realm of the psyche, of the dream, and of human mystery. Actually, the poets got there first; we have transformed into science, translated into methodology the grammar of the unconscious, but for the poet it is pure intuition, perhaps something akin to what Bion calls preconception. We have seen in the previous chapter what happens when sublimation is partial, fragile, a source of creativity but contiguous to pathological instances, and

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Chapter Seven - Sublimation in the postmodern era: a vanishing idea or a different form of expression?

ePub

We have always lived off the splendour of the subject and the poverty of the object. It is the subject that makes history, it's the subject that totalizes the world. Individual subject or collective subject, the subject of consciousness or of the unconscious, the ideal of all metaphysics is that of world subject; the object is only a detour on the royal road of subjectivity. […] The immemorial privilege of the subject is overthrown. For the subject is fragile and can only desire, whereas the object gets on very well even when desire is absent…

Jean Baudrillard, 1983, pp. 141–142

The truth is scandalous. But without it nothing has any worth. […] Of that with which you are concerned; simply say the truth, neither more nor less. You cannot love the truth and the world. But you have already chosen. […] Most people come to terms with life, or else they die. […] As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase. The edifice is splendid, but deserted. You are walking through empty halls, which send back to you the echo of your footsteps […] You would love to turn back, into the fog of ignorance…

 

CHAPTER SEVEN Sublimation in the postmodern era: a vanishing idea or a different form of expression?

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Sublimation in the postmodern era: a vanishing idea or a different form of expression?

We have always lived off the splendour of the subject and the poverty of the object. It is the subject that makes history, it’s the subject that totalizes the world. Individual subject or collective subject, the subject of consciousness or of the unconscious, the ideal of all metaphysics is that of world subject; the object is only a detour on the royal road of subjectivity. […] The immemorial privilege of the subject is overthrown. For the subject is fragile and can only desire, whereas the object gets on very well even when desire is absent …

—Jean Baudrillard, 1983, pp. 141–142

The truth is scandalous. But without it nothing has any worth. […]

Of that with which you are concerned; simply say the truth, neither more nor less. You cannot love the truth and the world. But you have already chosen. […] Most people come to terms with life, or else they die. […] As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase. The edifice is splendid, but deserted. You are walking through empty halls, which send back to you the echo of your footsteps […] You would love to turn back, into the fog of ignorance …

 

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