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Can We Sublimate Our Cravings

( Originally Published 1920 )

None of the words created by Freud has lent itself to more misinterpretation than the word sublimation. Sublimation is an unfortunate ex-pression. It is not related in its analytic meaning to sublimation as understood by chemists. It be-comes involuntarily associated with the adjective sublime and this association is the cause of a good deal of mischief.

By sublimation, Freud understands a process which seeks to utilize the sexual energy, immobilized by repressions and set free by analysis, for higher purposes of a non-sexual nature.

This is of course extremely vague and slightly fantastic and reminds us of the attempts made by alchemists in the middle ages to transmute "base metals" into gold.

We must beware of false analogies: heat can be transformed into power, power into heat and both into light, which in its turn can be transformed into power or heat, but human energy and energy as defined by physicists, while probably very similar, cannot be considered as synonymous and treated as such.

The human body is, as Kempf has said, a biological machine, but biological machines and ordinary machinery present one capital difference. While some mechanical apparatus may be so constructed that it can be utilized in ten or twenty different ways at the same time, the use or non-use of one or several of its parts does not affect the other parts. In the human organism all the parts are closely related and abuse or disuse of one of them has a repercussion in all the organs of the body.

A part of a machine may never be used and yet remain in perfect condition if protected against rust. Any part of the biological machine will wither and degenerate unless it is allowed to perform its specific functions. Atrophied muscles and ankylosed joints are the result of lack of normal activity.

Cravings, some people will say, are not to be compared to the play of muscles or joints. The tendency of modern psychology, however, is to identify more and more closely cravings with certain definite segments of the autonomic nervous system, and when that identification has been completed it will be obvious that to the atrophy of a certain nerve there must correspond the atrophy of the craving that nerve carries.

While sublimation is a new word, attempts at sublimation are nothing new. The ascetics who scourged their flesh to kill their "animal" desires, who withdrew into the desert to shun all temptations, were attempting to sublimate their cravings.

In too many cases, the result was not especially gratifying. The repression_ of a normal craving often meant the appearance of an abnormal symptom. The devil tempted sorely the holy men and women who were fighting the flesh, which meant that they exchanged normal reality for hallucinations, normal desires for perverse desires.

No normal craving can be normally repressed. Nor can it be normally sublimated. Sexual desire cannot be transformed into artistic achievement, philanthropy, social usefulness.

Sexual desire may be killed by castration, after which it may be that more energy can be expended by the subject on attaining other goals of a "higher, non-sexual character." Even this is rather dubious, as sexual activity is always linked and almost synonymous with many other organic activities.

The desirability of sublimation, except as a social convenience, remains to be proved. Freud's assertion that culture owes many of its conquests to the sublimation of sexual cravings is contradicted by the biography of many famous men; let us only mention Goethe and Rodin, who displayed a feverish creative activity while indulging freely and openly their sexual desires. Freud attempts to tell us that Leonardo da Vinci's creative powers may have been enhanced by his lack of desire for women's love. But Leonardo was a homosexual and satisfied his cravings abnormally, which used up at least as much energy as though he had satisfied them normally.

While guilty of vagueness when propounding his theory of sublimation, Freud should not be held responsible for some of the vagaries which some of his followers and some of the Swiss analysts have indulged in regarding the desirability and possibility of sublimating sexual cravings.

"We must not forget," Freud said in one of his lectures, "that a part of the suppressed sexual cravings has a right to direct satisfaction and should find it in life. Exaggerated sexual repression simply hastens our flight from reality and into a neurosis without assuring any cultural gain.

"We must not neglect the animal part of our nature. The elasticity of sex may lure some of us to attempt a more and more complete sublimation destined to promote high cultural aims. But even as our modern machines can only transform a part of the heat applied to them into useful mechanical work, sublimation can only use for other aims a part of the sexual energy.

"If the repression of sexuality is pushed too far it amounts to a robbery committed against the organism."

And he concluded his lecture with a story which left no doubt as to his opinion in the matter.

A village community kept a horse that could do an enormous amount of work. The wiseacres of the community thought, however, that he consumed too much fodder. They decided, therefore, to train him to subsist on smaller and smaller rations of fodder. The horse was apparently none the worse for his scanty diet. He finally was able to subsist on one stalk of hay a day. The next day, he was to be put to work without any fodder at all. On the morning of that day, however, he was found dead in his stall. The sublimation of his craving for food was complete.

The constantly increasing repression to which sexual cravings are submitted, owing to the growing complexity of community life, compel every thinking human being to give the subject the earnest consideration it deserves.

A mere denial of the possibility of sublimation as understood by Freud or a convenient assertion of its possibility by well meaning, though irresponsible moral zealots, will not solve the problem.

The problem, however, has not been formulated properly.

The question is not as to whether we can sublimate the sexual craving as understood biologically, but as to whether we can sublimate the sexual craving as complicated by modern civilization.

Sexual desire at the present day has been completely exiled from polite society, from conversation, from literature, from pictorial representation, and relegated to the bedroom.

Many of its more or less unavoidable consequences, love, affection, tenderness, admiration, etc., have been given an undue prominence for the purpose of drawing a veil over the gross physical phenomena of sex.

As we are too often the victims of the vocabulary we use, many rely upon the vocabulary of polite society to assist them in their flight from gross reality.

A woman unable to voice publicly her desire for sexual gratification declares that she seeks a companion. And she probably means that, too. And if her lack of gratification should be the cause of a neurosis, it would be most important to know that her sexual craving is complicated by a craving for companionship.

Almost any craving can be easily gratified in our modern world so long as it remains dissociated from other cravings. The sexual craving being frowned upon by our hypocritical civilization, is constantly associated with many other cravings which the normal man, as well as the neurotic, imagine to be inseparable components of "love."

The love of an individual for an individual of the opposite sex may, according to temperaments, include one or all of the following cravings: domination, companionship, protection, pride, boastfulness, submission, praise, possession of beauty, active or passive tenderness, wealth, romance, excitement.

While every one of these non-sexual cravings may be invoked by men and women to justify sexual indiscretions to which their gratification has led, it may be also stated that in thousands of cases, the sexual gratification was an incident of the gratification of one or several of these cravings.

Flaubert's silly and touching heroine, Madame Bovary, was anything but an oversexed woman carried away by her sensuality. Love, to her, meant romance, sentimental companionship, the translation-into real life of the fiction and poetry she had read or memorized, mysterious trysts, perilous situations, obstacles successfully surmounted, the breaking away from conventionality and monotony, an opportunity to give vent to the trashy lyricism which filled her day dreams, etc. Those were really the things she craved but her lack of intelligence, of ability in any direction, of psychological insight, of altruistic guidance, conspired to convince her that in love only could she attain the gratification of all her desires.

When reality proved cruelly deceptive and she saw all her dreams shattered, she fled from reality by the path of suicide.

Others adopt the path of the neurosis, seeking an abnormal gratification of a sometimes very painful type or imagining that all their wishes have been fulfilled and living the unreal life of the insane.

It goes without saying that even a moderate sexuality reinforced and complicated by so many sentimental associations becomes a tyrant against whose domination the subject's will can hardly prevail.

The task of the analyst in such cases is easily defined, although difficult of execution, for the truth in such matters is not always readily ascertained.

While a subject may deny vehemently to his associates that he is obsessed by sexual thoughts, he may in the seclusion of a physician's or an analyst's office, greatly exaggerate those cravings which he aims to make responsible for his condition.

The analyst must then determine all the parasitic elements which have attached themselves to the sexual cravings as barnacles attach themselves to a ship and endeavour to make the subject see them, not as essential details of his obsession, but as separate entities.

Every one of Emma Bovary's cravings could have been satisfied separately in non-sexual ways if she had not relied upon an idéal lover to bring to her all the elements of happiness, if she had entered the road of positive personal achievement.

Likewise many a woman suffering from sick headaches because her husband or lover neglects her and fails to help her carry out her dreams of domination, could be relieved of her symptoms if she could be made to see in how many other directions her will-to-power could exert itself.

After positive means have' been agreed upon between the subject and the analyst for the gratification of the various parasitic cravings which have been separated from his sexual craving, there will be a residuum of pure sexuality for which no sublimation can be suggested.

If that craving does not receive satisfaction of a normal nature it will proceed to satisfy itself in more or less abnormal ways, the least abnormal of which will be, according to the subject's repressions, gross sexual dreams or symbolical anxiety dreams. Further analysis should endeavour to transform such anxiety dreams into obvious dreams so as to avoid the organic waste corresponding to anxiety.

No "ethical" solution, however, can be offered by any honest analyst for the subject who, owing to certain complications of modern life, cannot secure normal sexual gratification.

Religious meditation may satisfy the mystical cravings which are often associated with sexual desire, but it does not satisfy that desire except in abnormal ways, ,as in the case of Zinzendorf, who imagined himself a woman in the arms of the Heavenly Bridegroom.

Charitable or social work of the philanthropic type will use up the masochistic love components which cause the subject to expend care or tenderness upon others.

Artistic endeavour would gratify egotistical cravings, and so would public speaking, acting, and other activities more or less exhibitionistic in their character.

Joining clubs, societies, etc. is the best way to satisfy the desire for companionship; organizing new groups and assuming their leadership would relieve the feeling of inferiority which drives one to secure some form of domination.

A thousand other suggestions for craving-gratification of a positive, socially useful and beneficial type can be suggested by the analyst to his subject and should be suggested, but I repeat, none of them will reduce the power of the sexual craving itself.

The sexual craving, however, after being freed of all parasitical cravings, will appear infinitely less insistent.

A comparison with another physical craving will make the point clearer. Certain neurotics are tortured by a constant need to urinate which may be designated as "nervous," for its satisfaction reveals that an insignificant amount of urine has accumulated and that the pressure exerted by it is not sufficient to demand the voiding of the bladder.

It is not the quantity of urine present in the bladder, nor the condition of the, bladder or of the urinary passages which creates the need, but some compulsion which uses the urinary organs as a convenient means of self-expression.

When the obsessive ideas connected with urination are removed by analysis, urine can be retained in the bladder for several hours without causing any discomfort. In this case we have a parasitic craving attaching itself to a physical function and making the performance of that function a constantly reappearing need.

Cravings for certain foods disappear, leaving simply a healthy appetite for those foods, when the associations which make such foods absolutely necessary for the subject's peace of mind or happiness have been made conscious. A patient unable to digest anything but milk and hard brown rolls which he carried in his pocket and constantly toyed with, began to assimilate easily other aliments when he realized his regression to an infantile diet and to a symbolic form, of coprophilism.

His liking for milk and rolls did not pass away when he gained insight into the unconscious reasons for his abnormal craving for them. He still considered them as pleasant forms of nourishment but he was no longer obsessed by the thought of them.

Whether the sexual craving is conscious or un-conscious, it should be submitted to a careful analysis leading to its disintegration into a genuine sexual need and various parasitic cravings.

Finally a word should be said about subjects who, owing to certain fears, fear of disease, fear of impotence, fear of "injuring their brain," shun sexual gratification.

Their case is generally rather complicated, for their fear itself is a neurotic fancy which leads them to submit to a deprivation likely, in its turn, to cause more neurotic complications.

After their phobia has been analysed and re-moved, they should be enlightened sexually and freed from the various superstitious beliefs relative to sexual activities which are being spread abroad by quacks or ignorant puritans and upon which the neurotic imagination seizes as a convenient excuse for certain forms of negativism.

Repression And Submlimation


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