Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

On Sublimation

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

On Sublimation

Article excerpt

The sublime and sublimation are the key concepts of two theories of aesthetic experience exploring the spiritual emancipation of man. One theory, born in classical antiquity as a principle of rhetoric, acquired a philosophical or psychological-philosophical status in the pre-romantic period during the second half of the XVIII century; the other is instead part of the Freudian view of psychic development, therefore presenting itself from the start as a psychological theory. Both theories propose themselves as heuristic tools to investigate the mysteries of artistic creativity at its highest levels1 and, according to both, the experience of art fruition would afford an 'elevation' of the subject. The contiguity of these two theoretical threads is not only seen in the fact that the terms which define them, namely sublime and sublimation, share the same etymological root2 - the first referring to the subject's ethically enriching ascent, the second to the set of psychical transformations that the Ego undergoes - but it may be argued that their similarity extends to the fields of investigation and, even if through different explanatory routes, to the different theoretical conclusions. There is, however, an asymmetry in the reception of the concepts of sublimity and of sublimation

In fact, whereas the sublime seems never to go out of fashion, sublimation is somewhat the 'Cinderella' of psychoanalysis. Despite being one of the most debated and widely disseminated concepts in popular culture - to the point of becoming a feature of common speech - the concept of sublimation still lacks a convincing systematic theorisation. It is not therefore surprising that sublimation may suffer from being dated or discredited.

For this reason, and in light of the relative similarity between the two concepts, but also in view of their different 'specific weights' in their respective disciplinary domains, I propose that it is worthwhile revisiting sublimation through the theory of the sublime to assess if, once reinterpreted or 'rediscovered', the concept may still be considered a valid theoretical and clinical tool. To my knowledge, an attempt to compare sublimation and the sublime has not yet been carried out.3

A nebulous (sublime?) concept: Freud and sublimation

The concept of sublimation has been marked by a degree of ambiguity since its very origin. We find it for the first time - after a hint in a letter to Fliess dated 2nd May 1897 (Freud, 1985) - in the case of Dora, where sublimation possibly arises from the repression of infantile perverse sexual dispositions, and is a feature of transference "more elaborately devised"; transference, that is, which does not take the form of mere "reprints" but of "revised editions" of "earlier psychic experiences" (Freud, 2013, p. 167). Freud did not manage to write the chapter he had planned in his Metapsychology which might have cast greater clarity on this topic (or perhaps it was lost).

But what do we mean by 'to sublimate'? Essentially, we mean the capacity to be able to convert a sexual drive - in Freud's writings a recurring synonym of sublimation is "sexual abstinence" - into a non-sexual one, and to change its object and aim. The new aim is psychically "closely related" to the old one, but is "higher" and therefore "free from objection" (Freud, 1910, p. 15) and "more socially valuable" (Freud, 1910, p. 29), as it relates to specifically human and socially approved functions and activities.

Not that for the individual a direct sexual satisfaction would not have value, but one attained through sublimation would have value for more people (this doesn't imply that for some sublimation may have no value at all or even be despised). Sublimation therefore refers to a "displacement of libido" (Freud, 2016, p. 58), where the libido's impetus has been mitigated, "tamed", and it's aim deviated to a "finer and higher" joy; a joy, even though of "much lesser intensity than the direct satisfaction of coarser drives [would bring]", that does "not convulse our physical framework". …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.