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Popularity of the Idea of Sublimation

( Originally Published 1957 )

A great many examples of the idea of sublimation can be found in the literature of the social sciences, and especially in popular and semipopular writing on sexual behavior. It is easy to grasp and is well adapted to concrete illustration. Freud has suggested that the different pathways along which sexual energy moves behave like a set of communicating pipes. Imagine a system for conducting water under pressure from a source point to a final outlet. Imagine a connecting system of pipes to serve as drainage for overflow in the event of blocking in the central main. Now suppose a free flow of liquid (genital impulse) to be dammed up by a block (inhibition). The water then would find a substitute outlet (sublimation) by way of the connecting pipes (nongenital forms of eroticism, sexual "love," etc.). For an illustration of the changes in feeling, one might think of various devices for making temperature differences that would cause the drained-off liquid to issue forth, finally, as dew, or mist, or cloud formation, frost, snow, etc. These would illustrate the various sublimations.

The notion of "irradiation" is also easily illustrated. Thus Exner states: "On the physical level sex expression tends to be short-circuited between desire and satisfaction. It takes the most direct route, on a physical plane, like an electric current between two poles. With the growth of the social elements, sex expression has come increasingly to be long-circuited through the whole range of physical, aesthetic, affectional and social values and responses. It has become increasingly refined, socialized, spiritualized."

The idea of sexual sublimation has been expressed in various ways by different writers. A fairly typical example, somewhat like the statements of both Ellis and Freud, may be taken from Waller: "The mating impulse encounters, in our culture, a number of obstacles; the patterning to which it is subjected sets up a number of difficult conditions and necessitates many delays and postponements. Because of this blocking, the impulse in-creases in intensity, and is long-circuited into other channels of emotion and ideation. The sentiment of love as we know it is compounded of the bare impulse plus these elements of emotion and ideation . . ." In other words, when the impulse is blocked, there result certain emotions and certain ways of thinking about the attractive person. Idealization, also, is among these effects.

According to Robert Briffault, the various sentiments of sexual attraction may be traced to the repression of the sexual impulses. Because of the great strength of these impulses they take any outlet available, and when repressed they find release in several ways. One of these outlets is the "romantic emotion." Fixation on one person, as well as passion itself, is the product of the overflow. "Their concentration upon one individual as their object also results from the restriction imposed upon their operations, and is directly proportional to the measure in which these restrictions operate and are accepted."

The essentials of the concept are placed by Muller-Lyer in an historical setting:

One can hardly fail to perceive that the evolution of romantic love was greatly influenced by the advancing pressure which State, Church and general morality brought to bear upon sex life and also by the spread of continence, all of which brought about an aggravation of the sex instinct. Natural man found little or no obstacle in the way of indulging his appetite. But by natural gratification the instinct is at once appeased and cannot develop to a passionate intensity. Repressed, on the contrary, it turns in upon itself and fills the soul with flaming passion and vivid fantasy . . . the evolution of romantic love goes parallel with the obstacles which in the course of time were put in the way of satisfying the longing.

If it is true that the romantic emotion is fed by blocking or repressing the sexual impulse, it should follow that any social change that permits more sexual freedom would have an effect on sexual love. During a period when morals were supposed to be in decline, the novelist, Aldous Huxley, raised the question of what could be done "to create those internal restraints with-out which sexual impulse cannot be transformed into love." Romantic love "is the product of two opposed forces of an instinctive impulsion and a social resistance acting on the individual. . . . When . . . resistance is removed, the impulse wastes itself on emptiness; and love, which is only the product of conflicting forces, is not born."

The idea has been expressed that converted sexual impulses may find release entirely outside the sexual sphere. Thus Winiarsky, in 1898, wrote: "Sexual want unsatisfied and arrested is transformed into a whole series of . . . phenomena, called love. This takes place not only among individuals, but in entire societies. An unhappy love affair in certain individuals is trans-formed into affection for their fellow-beings; thus it is that certain women become sisters of charity; in others it is trans-formed into poetry it is thus that certain poets have revealed themselves . . ." The notion that sublimating confers greater refinement and delicacy upon the "raw" genital impulse was expressed as long ago as 1877 by Maudsley: "Given ... a well-constituted and naturally-developed brain, the sexual desire undergoes a complex development in consciousness: its coarse energy undergoes refinement . . . and from its basis are evolved all those delicate, exalted and beautiful feelings of love that constitute the store of the poet and play so great a part in human happiness and in human sorrow." Given, on the other hand, according to Maudsley, an imperfectly developed brain, and the result will be, as with the lower animals, the appearance of the genital impulse, naked and direct.

That the repressed impulse may appear in philanthropic and spiritual forms is reaffirmed by Blanchard (1920) : "The love which is . . . denied its biological expression ... may reach out to envelop all humanity, and find a suitable activity in social service. It may be transformed into the love of God and find an outlet in the religious life of the individual."

More recently this idea has been summed up by Burgess and Locke: "Sublimation of sex emerges under conditions of separation of the sexes and the presence of other obstacles to freedom of association between them. . . . In American culture a wide range of activities, those of dating, courtship, engagement, are sublimations preparatory to marriage, and a great body of behavior, artistic, recreational and religious are substitutes for sex expression."

Returning to the amorous emotion, some writers have put stress on the checking of the sexual impulse, without regard to change in quality of the experience. Thus, P. T. Young writes: ... in romantic love the lovers are at once aroused and inhibited sexually. This state of conflict evokes the disturbing emotion known as `being in love,' which is felt by the two individuals. The more strongly an individual is excited by sexual stimulation and the more completely this biological urge is frustrated, the greater will be his emotional disturbance." The emotional tension arising from blocked desire may last, according to Young, for a long while, and this is why being in love may endure for a considerable period. A statement by Floyd H. Allport is terse, and "physiological" in emphasis. During courtship "the sexual drive of the wooer is not yet released; every detail about the beloved from head to toe is, therefore, a stimulus which helps to augment the tonus already present in the pelvic viscera. This is the condition of being blindly in love." The last sample is a bit unusual in making very little distinction between the amorous experience and genital de-sire. We may regard it as an extreme position. Next would come the idea that the amorous emotion, although it may differ in several ways from the sexual impulse, nevertheless comes out of it by some kind of change. Finally, we have those who think these "two kinds of sex" are of different origin as well as of different character.

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