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Some Critics of Sublimation

( Originally Published 1957 )



The idea of sublimation has had a number of critics, among those who have made use of it as well as among those who doubt its value. Freud acknowledged, in his "Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex" (1905) that nothing was known about the "inner determinants" of the process. In an extensive study of psychoanalytic literature, H. B. Levey finds that the theory of sublimation has been very little developed since it was first introduced. Discussion of the way in which sexual energy can be diverted into nonsexual activities has been, he finds, "obscure and confused." Proof that the source of supposedly sublimated energy is really sexual has not been offered. Statements of what the process of sublimating actually is have been "untested and unverified." In the writings of psycho-analysis sublimation has come to be taken pretty much for granted, it seems, without ever having been critically tested to discover whether it exists. Dr. Robert Sears, after looking over the evidence, finds that little is known about sublimation, and that it is much in need of investigation. J. C. Flugel admits that the meaning of the term is "vague and fluctuating" and finds it hard to decide how it should be applied. Dr. Glover thinks there is an increasing confusion among writers about what the process really is. (35) Mursell holds that the behavior to which sublimation has been applied can be ac-counted for in other and better ways. He thinks the idea is based upon "radically faulty" logic, and questions whether there is any direct evidence that the process is real. (46) The use of sublimation, according to LaPierre and Farnsworth, reflects a tendency to make social behavior too simple. Human motives, whether we like it or not, are many and varied. They, too, question the evidence for the supposed conversion of sexual impulse; sublimation is "a dogma that is taken on faith by all good Freudians but is of little value to the social psychologist."

Dr. W. S. Taylor has pointed to familiar examples in which one kind of behavior may take the place of another in satisfying a need. One may do many different things, for example, to satisfy a need of exercise. A child who has been freely at play may, when snugly enclosed in a sleeping bag, continue to discharge its energies in a more limited way by vocalizing. Taylor thinks that the matter is not the same, however, for all needs. In the case of desires that are more specific, such as thirst, hunger, and sex, relief can be provided only by equally specific kinds of satisfaction. In this connection, he finds "basic in-adequacies in the theory of sublimation." A like view is taken by Gordon Allport, who denies altogether that such needs as hunger and sex can be "sublimated." These can be relieved only by specific kinds of behavior. An unrelated activity that tires the whole organism, for example, may reduce the restlessness aroused by a desire, but this is not sublimation in its usual meaning.

We can satisfy our sex needs with "substitutes" only if the latter are related to sex, in the view of another psychologist. Art, for example, can provide a sexual outlet only if it has a sexual meaning. Maternal feelings may be satisfied through devotion to pets only if these arouse the same feelings and emotional responses as would a child. "But in such cases there is no conversion of energy. . . . An instinct is not . . . a form of energy which may be transformed in the same way that the energy of the waterfall may be transformed into electrical heat energy." Brill's case of the "Peeping Tom" who sublimates his sexual interest by becoming a maker of optical instruments might be refashioned as an illustration. Sex curiosity could, of course, be the sole motive for interest in such instruments. But if an interest in optics should develop from this which was free of any sex element, then we should say that a new motive has been born which is now independent of the original interest. Until it has been demonstrated, we need not believe that the new interest is still being fed, to some degree, by sexual energy.

Some prefer to call the supposedly changed and refined forms of sexual impulse as "indirect" expressions of it. In genital inter-course, sexuality finds its direct outlet, while "all the sentiments and feelings of love and tenderness which accompany it may be thought of as indirect expressions of sex." (8) At first en-counter this choice of words has much in its favor. "Indirect" is a simple word, with no suggestion of a mysterious alchemy of transmutation whose operation no one seems to understand. If the genital impulse is all there is to human sexuality, then every detail of courtship behavior, and every phase of the emotional experience that goes with it, may be viewed as stations on the way to genital contact, or at least as byways of pleasurable anticipation. They may be called "indirect" but they are not undirected, for all are but varying expressions of sensual desire as it moves toward is goal. The term is well suited to the view that there is only one kind of sex. Such simplicity becomes a defect, however, if this view is in error. "Sublimation" has at least the merit that it implies something more than a mere change in course of an unchanged impulse. It helps, at least, to suggest that only a term which means an actual conversion of motives is needed to describe the different forms of sexual behavior.

In an attempt at direct investigation, W. S. Taylor studied forty young unmarried men for evidence of sublimation. The character of these men was felt to be unusually well adapted to substitute forms of sexual expression. The men were students in graduate and professional schools of leading American universities. They were of high standing as students, had "very normal" social habits, and were athletically active. There was evidence of aesthetic appreciation among them, and many had shown artistic ability.

It was found that all of the men were obtaining direct sexual satisfaction in some way; that is, there was "unsublimated" expression in every case. The outlets reported were: masturbation; orgasm during sleep, with erotic imagery; "petting" to the point of orgasm; intercourse with prostitutes or with non-prostitutes. The men rated highest in intellectual, social, and aesthetic abilities had the fewest nocturnal orgasms, relatively. These orgasms were regarded as the "most sublimational" of the direct forms of outlet.

These findings fail to support the view that "specifically sexual energies" can be disposed of in other activities, in Taylor's opinion. The pressure of sexual need was relieved, seemingly, just so far as direct genital-sex outlets were obtainable, and he views this as "strong evidence" against sublimation. This theory fails to consider the fact that there is a basic "physical" sexual need in young men, a periodic urge comparable with hunger, which cannot be changed into anything else; "it requires and finds some direct outlet in every case." (52) Many of our de-sires arise from specific tissue conditions, which must continue to stimulate us until we do something specific to satisfy them. Among these are hunger and thirst, fatigue, the need of elimination, etc., and they include, he believes, "in the male, a vital part of sex."

This agrees with Freud's opinion that "a certain degree of direct sexual satisfaction appears to be absolutely necessary for by far the greater number of natures." A similar view has been expressed by Ellis. Taylor's study demonstrates only that if any sublimation did occur in his group of men, it did not remove the need for direct sexual outlets. Among a much larger group of males, Kinsey was unable to find evidence of any clear-cut examples of sublimation; the process is "so subtle or so rare," he thinks, as to be merely possible, rather than a demonstrated fact.



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