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Amorous Emotion without Sublimation

( Originally Published 1957 )


SUBLIMATION takes place when the sexual impulse is blocked or inhibited. This, at any rate, is the theory. We should be able to see how well it holds if we compare human societies which differ in the amount of sex liberty allowed. Among a people in which the impulse labors under heavy counterpressures we should expect its sublimated forms to appear. When a high degree of sexual freedom is permitted, products of sublimation, in any great amount, would not be expected.

Our knowledge about the amorous behavior and experience of uncivilized people is not great. This may be owing, in part, to our attitude toward sex matters generally. "Until a few years ago," wrote Raymond Firth in 1937, "sex was a subject usually avoided in anthropological monographs. This omission was due partly to sheer prudery and partly to the difficulty of obtaining information on this most intimate side of man's personal life."

The natives of the Trobriand Islands, thoroughly studied by Malinowski, place little check upon premarital sex activity. Children engage freely in erotic play long before they are old enough to complete the sexual act. The attitude of adults toward this is quite tolerant and permissive. It is viewed either with indifference or with amused interest as a natural and innocent recreation. Many of the games played in public places are flavored with sex. Malinowski places the beginnings of "real" sex life at ages six to eight among the girls, and ten to twelve among boys. There is again, no disapproval of intercourse between older boys and girls. Adolescence is a period of free liaisons and of sexual experiment; during these pairings the couples may live together in voluntary unions. In general, ... subject to certain restrictions, everyone has a great deal of freedom and many opportunities for sexual experience. Not only need no one live with impulses unsatisfied, but there is also a wide range of choice and opportunity." The early sexual attractions, with erotic play and crude attempts at inter-course, tend to be unstable and casual, but at adolescence the interest grows more serious. The adolescent becomes more strongly attracted to a particular person. He works with plan and purpose toward the goal of possession, and may be made quite miserable by failure. The expression of personal preference and a tendency toward more prolonged attachment are the characteristics of adolescent sexual life. "The boy develops a desire to retain the fidelity and exclusive affection of the loved one, at least for a time." There is yet, however, no thought of marriage or of a permanent and exclusive relationship.

These emotional bonds have formed during the everyday contacts of childhood, among boys and girls who have grown up together and who know each other well. "Such early acquaintances take fire, as it were, under the influence of certain entertainments, where the intoxicating influence of music and moonlight, and the changed mood and attire of all the participants, transfigure the boy and girl in each other's eyes." (30) The liaisons tend to become stronger and more permanent with increasing age. Eventually one preference begins to dominate all other attractions. These deepening attachments develop during free indulgence in sexual intercourse. The two live together and are publicly regarded as probable matrimonial prospects. The relationship is maintained entirely by personal attraction. While possessive feelings increase in strength, there are no obligations, under tribal law or custom, to remain together, and the liaison may be dissolved at will.

While attractions begin with the appeals of physical beauty and of personality, one feature of the romantic relationship seen in higher civilizations is absent. The taboos which, in our society, tend to check any impulse toward immediate sexual intimacy, and which permit the lover to "endow the beloved with inestimable virtues and enclose him or her in an aura of holy and mysterious desirability," are here absent. With the youth of Melanesia, as with us, "the first impression produces an aesthetic and sensuous reaction which transforms its cause into something desirable, valuable, and worthy of strenuous effort. But the feeling of mystery, the desire to worship at a distance or merely to be admitted into her presence is not there." From childhood such attractions have led at once to erotic advances, for which plenty of opportunities are offered by the circumstances of village life. Intercourse is directly solicited, and if granted, "the romantic frame of mind, the craving for the unattainable and mysterious" is eliminated. The element of "overvaluation" is not a part of amorous behavior, according to Malinowski's account, when the genital impulse is easily satisfied.

It is equally clear, however, that sexual interest among the Trobrianders is much more than sensual. Even in the earlier relationships, amorous longings of a quite familiar kind are evidenced in the expressions of strong personal preferences. "In these examples we find what we ourselves mean by love: imagination and an attempt to woo the heart through the imagination rather than by a direct appeal to the senses; steadfast preference and repeated attempts at possession. In many of them, there is a pronounced appreciation of the personality loved and of its power to enrich life or leave it empty." Malinowski finds much evidence that "Marriage is often determined by the attraction of character and personality rather than by sexual adaptation or erotic seduction. This fact . . . [was] found con-firmed in many concrete cases and in a hundred details. Only in the passing intrigues is simple bodily charm the principal attraction." Much of the behavior described appears to have as its motive mainly the desire to be together, with sexual activity included only as an episode. Malinowski was curious to learn whether sexual interest was narrowly specific and physical, or whether it embraced general aesthetic enjoyment in a broader sense. He observed that despite the ample view of the body permitted by modes of dress, "it is a notable fact that their main erotic interest is focussed on the . . . head and face." " (34) The eyes and mouth, nose and teeth, are important items of attraction. Physical vigor, pleasing proportions of the body, agility, grace of movement, quality of voice, are other prized traits.

Marriage means the end of sexual freedom, since the bond is firm, and there is no lending or exchanging of wives among these primitives. Under such conditions the question may be asked, as Malinowski points out, what incentives marriage can offer, since it adds nothing to sex liberty but rather reduces it, and since liaisons with sexual possession can be maintained as long as desired, and without obligation. Yet he found no single men of mature age, with the exception of mental defectives and persons with marked physical defects. Widowers remarried at once after the mourning period terminated, and deserted men likewise did so as soon as reconciliation attempts proved unsuccessful. To the men, marriage offered an advance in social status as well as a definite economic gain; it brought to the husband a large and regular tribute of food from the wife's family. The prospect of a home and children was an incentive, as well, to both members of the pair. Malinowski stresses, however, that not the least of incentives was the spontaneous desire to ensure continuous possession of the loved person by a permanent and binding tie. While economic gains might be central in some marriages, "individual preference and love are often the deter-mining factors of choice."

Malinowski gives us, for the most part, little more than a description of the external markings of the amorous state from which to make our inferences. In general, however, he offers ample evidence of strongly individualized personal fixations. They appear to be sex-emotional attractions which develop under circumstances free of any need of "sublimation" of the genital impulse. Apart from idealization, they differ in no significant feature from the amorous attachments of more civilized cultures.

It might be well to pause for a moment and to ask what part idealization plays in the amorous experience and how important it is. We have suggested that sexual love is recognizable by exclusive interest in one person and by a foremost desire for possession, this possession being a complete proprietorship of the entire person and personality. It was proposed that this desire is the response to an emotion that is aroused by traits that make up aesthetic individuality. By this we mean traits in the general class of what is regarded as the beautiful, and that distinguished one person from others.

That this emotion might well be described as "rapturous" agrees with the fact that we feel this emotion when we perceive sex-aesthetic traits that have high value for us. It is not surprising that this rapture should at times seem exaggerated to others for whom these traits do not have the same value. We may also grant that people we do not know can intrigue the imagination as people we do know cannot, and that the "magic touch" of psychological distance should lend something to sexual attraction. But that "mystery," in the sense of unexplored features or facets of personality, is a real essential to sexual love has not been demonstrated. All persons of whom we lack full knowledge are a potential source of enigmatic or "mysterious" impressions, but these impressions do not become important to us unless interest and, in the sexual sense, attraction, is first aroused.

It is a familiar thought that enigmas may provide rich material for the imagination, and it seems plausible that, to some degree, "overvaluation" could be a consequence of this. We still have to explain, of course, why imagination should tend so favorably to exaggerate what it finds. That what is called overvaluation may be the result, not so much of the imaginative "projection" of extraordinary values upon the beloved person, as of certain extraordinary and peculiar responses of the lover himself, is a possibility to be considered in a later chapter.

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