The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism

The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism

The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism

The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism

Synopsis

This study examines the history of the psychoanalytic theory of mysticism, starting with the seminal correspondence between Freud and Romain Rolland concerning the concept of "oceanic feeling." Providing a corrective to current views which frame psychoanalysis as pathologizing mysticism, Parsons reveals the existence of three models entertained by Freud and Rolland: the classical reductive, ego-adaptive, and transformational (which allows for a transcendent dimension to mysticism). Then, reconstructing Rolland's personal mysticism (the "oceanic feeling") through texts and letters unavailable to Freud, Parsons argues that Freud misinterpreted the oceanic feeling. In offering a fresh interpretation of Rolland's mysticism, Parsons constructs a new dialogical approach for psychoanalytic theory of mysticism which integrates culture studies, developmental perspectives, and the deep epistemological and transcendent claims of the mystics.

Excerpt

In 1904, Freud traveled to the Acropolis. Standing amid the temple ruins, gazing out over the sea, he fulfilled one of his most cherished wishes. His descriptions of that moment, found in his letters and cultural texts dealing with mysticism, are oddly contradictory, emphasizing his utter joy, astonishment, and sense of reality on the one hand and feelings of derealization and depression on the other. These varying descriptions make the Acropolis a fitting symbol for Freud's perplexity and ambivalence when faced with oceanic feelings. Years later he said that for him mysticism was, like music, a closed book. This "landtier" was more comfortable with worldly themes and cultural selfobjects of western religions; his genius was content to play between their manifest and latent meaning. In 1914, when Jung and Adler had defected and the Great War threatened both Europe and Freud's hopes for the dissemination of psychoanalysis, the introspective doctor, in the throes of self-disintegration, traveled again. This time he visited not the Acropolis and its blue sea, but Rome and its statues, there to gain newfound strength meditating on Michelangelo's Moses.

The legacy Freud bequeathed for the religious of his generation consisted in unearthing the depth-psychological issues surrounding figures like Moses and Oedipus. While present cultures may also serve to shape the psychic structure of its inhabitants in ways that emphasize the preponderance of such developmental themes, it is, at least to much of my generation, Freud's forays into the pre- Oedipal and mysticism that are of more relevance. This is not to be read simply or principally as an indication that recent generations are beset by a culture of narcissism. On the contrary, while depth-psychological ideation of various kinds can be found in contemporary as well as historic expressions of mysticism, the more recent interest in, familiarity with, and investigation of altered states has . . .

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