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

By William B. Parsons | Go to book overview

ONE
Across All Boundaries

The Atheistic Jew and the Apostle of Love

On February 9, 1923, Freud wrote to Edouard Monod-Hertzen, the son of Gabriel Monod, a friend and teacher of Romain Rolland, to relay to the latter a "word of respect from an unknown admirer." 1 Rolland responded with enthusiasm less than two weeks later, praising Freud's person and work. Thus began a correspondence which lasted until Freud's death in 1939, touching on topics ranging from art, psychoanalysis, and mysticism to politics and the Great War. Interestingly enough, what most have come to associate with the correspondence, the debate over the oceanic feeling, did not occur until the years 1927-1930. Up to that time, the topic remained untouched. After 1930, the two men continued their debate on the nature and interpretation of mysticism, although reference to a variety of other topics can also be found. Given this, and drawing on the complete correspondence as cataloged by Ernst Freud, Colette Cornubert, David Fisher, and Doré and Prévost, I divide the correspondence into three parts, which I term, quite simply, the "early," "middle," and "late" periods. 2 The "early period" of the correspondence, then, stretches from the inception of their relationship in 1923 to the beginning of the debate oil mysticism, instigated by Freud's gift to Rolland, a copy of The Future of an Illusion, late in 1927. The "middle period" formally begins with Rolland's crucial letter of December 5, 1927, and ends with the publication of Freud's analysis of the "oceanic feeling" in Civilization and Its Discontents. The "late period" of the correspondence starts with Rolland's gift to Freud in 1930 of his biographies of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and ends, for all intents and purposes, with Freud's analysis of his "mystical experience" on the Acropolis in 1936.

The analysis undertaken in this chapter will revolve around four topics that were directly addressed in the letters of the early period: politics, morality, art,

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