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The Case for Sublimation

( Originally Published 1957 )

Since sublimation is offered as the answer to a very important question about sex behavior, the question of how good an answer it provides is equally important. There are several reasons for its wide popularity. It is easy to grasp. Analogies are easy to find: just as one substance changes into another in the world of nature, so one emotion can change into another. It "shrinks" the variety of human sexual behavior into a unity by tracing it all from the same source. It thus has the appeal of a simplification. Doubtless its linkage with the authority of Freud, along with the great popularity of psychoanalytic doctrines in general, has helped to advance it further. Not the least of its assets, however, is what might be termed its "moral value." It offers a way, other than by direct physical outlet, for the expression of the sexual impulse. For example: "higher" forms of love, charitable acts, etc. Much weight has been placed on the possibility that transformations of the impulse may have a higher "social value" than the genital release. H. M. Parshley writes: "The reality of sublimation has been assumed from early times down to the present but never has it been so generously embraced as by a strangely assorted group of our own contemporaries. Psychoanalysts, Y.M.C.A. moral guides, Shaw, Jane Addams, and R. C. Cabot unite, for once, in their acceptance of the principle, though it must be admitted that Freud himself thinks it is `for the few,' and some recalcitrant psychologists . . . take a seriously critical attitude."

What looks like strong evidence in favor of sublimation as the source of amorous emotion is the old and familiar "marriage tradition" that there is a very large difference between the romantic emotion of the premarital period and the marital affection or "postromantic" love that follows. The reputed change involves precisely that feature Freud's "over-estimation" which some would regard as the most distinctive mark of the amorous experience. Exactly what happens has been frankly stated by Floyd Allport. "There is a romance about courtship which disappears in married existence." (1) With marriage, "The sex drive is . . . released; hence other considerations than those of love determine the perspective in which the spouse is perceived. A month's absence restores the unsatisfied longing and with it a great deal of the romance. Marital vacations, and the exercise of restraint while living together, thus give to wedded life the happiness of a prolonged honeymoon."

What this means for marriage has also been clearly stated: .. . with the entrance into the marital relationship and the release of the erotic emotion into natural channels so that it no longer seeks the vicarious outlets which were partly supplied in the idealization of the lovers, there is a tendency for this romantic element to fade from their affection. The conjugal affection which replaces it is built on quite other foundations. . . . The danger lies in the possibility that these foundations for conjugal love will not have been lain by the time that the romantic sentiments begin to grow dim."

Finck surmised that the reason no one had earlier made his discovery that the amorous emotion is a new experience in human history was that the difference between romantic love and marital affection had not been fully recognized, and this despite a great amount of evidence of which he gives a large sampling proving that there is a difference. If everyone would accept this emotional change as normal and inevitable it should help, he thought, to "break the sting of cynicism." He observed that sexual love loses, in marriage, its striking romantic element of "adoration and hyperbole," thus anticipating Freud, although Finck interpreted the loss differently.

It appears that we must either admit that "sublimation" gives a fairly plausible meaning to these facts, or we must find a better way of understanding them. Despite its popularity and its merits, there are grounds for doubting seriously that it provides a true interpretation of sex-emotional behavior and experience. Some of these grounds may now be considered.

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