Freud on: Sublimation
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Freud on: Sublimation


Some of what we want deep down in our primitive unconscious threatens to be pretty dark We may want to do no work, to steal, to injure others, to give way to despair Or to have sex in very taboo and damaging ways yet most of us do very little of this. In fact we often pour our energies into worthwhile projects and go out of our way to try to be good and helpful to those around us. That we’re able to do this fascinated the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who gave a special word to this ability to put our primitive, egoistic, destructive energies to good use. He called the process sublimation in German Sublimierung It was an idea that came to freud while he was reading a well-known and charming travel book, The Harz Journey, by the 19th century Poet Heinrich Heine. In it Heine mentioned meeting a legendary German surgeon called Johann Friedrich Deffenbaugh, who’d been extremely selfish and sadistic as a boy, loving to cut off the tails of stray dogs for sheer twisted pleasure. But then, as an adult, had matured into a profoundly selfless and brilliant surgeon, who’d made some pioneering discoveries in the fields of reconstructive and plastic surgery. Freud felt that this evolution, from a person who had sadistically used a knife to wound, to one who had nobly used it to mend, could not have been a mere coincidence and proposed that what was at play belong to a widespread pattern of behavior, whereby an early harmful or shocking drive gives rise to precisely its opposite, with the strength of the negative determining the power of the positive. Freud felt that this desire for compensation lays at the heart of many of the greatest achievements in the arts, politics and science. So, a great police detective might at an unconscious level, be defending themselves against certain of their own illegal wishes, and a politician committed to the plight of the poor might be sublimating an early experience of raging greed. In an essay on Leonardo da Vinci Freud presented the claim that da Vinci had been an extremely sexually active child, who had then sublimated his sexuality into scientific research and art. As Freud put it a forbidden desire for sexual pleasure, in this case for his mother, and then other boys had turned in da Vinci into a hugely honorable and powerful general urge to know The theory of sublimation is so hopeful because there’s so much about what we all want that proves impossible while there would be infinite reasons for anger and sterile nihilism, Freud notes our capacity to seek compensation and alternative fulfillments. Repeatedly in his work, Freud stressed a fact, which though it sounds absurdly obvious, we nevertheless usually fail to give enough weight to – that all of us started out as babies. In that state we wanted only immediate pleasure and satisfaction. Our drives in their initial forms, which are things that couldn’t work out for us and that had to be painfully surrendered, we believe that if we didn’t get all we wanted at once it would be a catastrophe And we would die. This kind of thinking explains the shrieking and wailing of infants in a tantrum. We thought the world revolved just around us and we couldn’t be generous to others, and yet most of us turned into healthy adults by managing to substitute our original narcissistic aims for more ethical and fruitful alternatives. Freud added soberly that we’re never quite done with sublimation. We continue to be frustrated in what we really want, most often around sex, continually we encounter people we’d love to sleep with but mustn’t and yet rather than this energy going nowhere we have an ability to use our frustration to power other things creative endeavors, scientific breakthroughs, care for the vulnerable. In Freud’s eyes disappointment is inevitable. Our longings will systematically outrun reality, but sublimation remains the one hugely helpful option for us: under it’s guidance, envy can turn into effort, wounded egoism into a capacity for gratitude and appreciation, sexual rejection into a film or a novel. As Freud saw it, psychoanalysis is the field designed to help us discover how we can use our disappointments more productively, how we can grow up to be not embittered or shut down, but paradoxically, energized by some of our greatest underlying sorrows. The good life isn’t one where we get exactly what we want, it’s one where we find fulfilling second bests and where we have the inner freedom to redirect our disappointments with maximal imagination, a life where we’ve learned, as Freud tried to show us, to sublimate well.

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