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In psychology, sublimation is a mature type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are consciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse. Sigmund Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity (indeed, of civilization), allowing people to function normally in culturally acceptable ways. He defined sublimation as the process of deflecting sexual instincts into acts of higher social valuation, being "an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilised life". Wade and Tavris present a similar view, stating that sublimation is when displacement "serves a higher cultural or socially useful purpose, as in the creation of art or inventions".
The first thinker to use the word in a psychological sense was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. (Kaufmann, Nietzsche, chapter 7, section II). In the opening section of Human, All Too Human entitled ‘Of first and last things’, Nietzsche wrote:
There is, strictly speaking, neither unselfish conduct, nor a wholly disinterested point of view. Both are simply sublimations in which the basic element seems almost evaporated and betrays its presence only to the keenest observation. All that we need and that could possibly be given us in the present state of development of the sciences, is a chemistry of the moral, religious, aesthetic conceptions and feeling, as well as of those emotions which we experience in the affairs, great and small, of society and civilization, and which we are sensible of even in solitude. But what if this chemistry established the fact that, even in its domain, the most magnificent results were attained with the basest and most despised ingredients? Would many feel disposed to continue such investigations? Mankind loves to put by the questions of its origin and beginning: must one not be almost inhuman in order to follow the opposite course?
In Freud's psychoanalytical theory, erotic energy is allowed a limited amount of expression, owing to the constraints of human society and civilization itself. It therefore requires other outlets, especially if an individual is to remain psychologically balanced.
Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements, including artistic, cultural and intellectual pursuits. Freud considered this psychical operation to be fairly salutary compared to the others that he identified, such as repression, displacement, denial, reaction formation, intellectualisation and projection. In the The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936), his daughter, Anna, classes sublimation as one of the major 'defence mechanisms' of the psyche.
Freud got the idea of sublimation whilst reading The Harz Journey by Heinrich Heine. The story is about Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach who cut off the tails of dogs he encountered in childhood and later became a surgeon. Freud concluded that sublimation could be observed in an action performed many times throughout one's life, which firstly appears sadistic, though is ultimately refined into an activity which is of benefit to mankind.
Harry Stack Sullivan, the pioneer of interpersonal psychoanalysis, defined sublimation as the unwitting substitution of a partial satisfaction with social approval for the pursuit of a direct satisfaction which would be contrary to one's ideals or to the judgment of social censors and other important people who surround one. The substitution might not be quite what we want, but it is the only way that we can get part of our satisfaction and feel secure, too. Sullivan documented that all sublimatory things are more complicated than the direct satisfaction of the needs to which they apply. They entail no disturbance of consciousness, no stopping to think why they must be done or what the expense connected with direct satisfaction would be. In successful sublimation, Sullivan observed extraordinarily efficient handling of a conflict between the need for a satisfaction and the need for security without perturbation of awareness.
Sexual sublimation, also known as sexual transmutation, is the attempt, especially among some religious traditions, to transform sexual impulses or "sexual energy" into creative energy. In this context, sublimation is the transference of sexual energy, or libido, into a physical act or a different emotion in order to avoid confrontation with the sexual urge, which is itself contrary to the individual's belief or ascribed religious belief. It is based on the idea that "sexual energy" can be used to create a spiritual nature which in turn can create more sensual works, instead of one's sexuality being unleashed "raw." The classical example in Western religions is clerical celibacy.
As espoused in the Tanya, Hasidic Jewish mysticism views sublimation of the animal soul as an essential task in life, wherein the goal is to transform animalistic and earthy cravings for physical pleasure into holy desires to connect with God.
Different schools of thought describe general sexual urges as carriers of spiritual essence, and have the varied names of vital energy, vital winds (prana), spiritual energy, ojas, shakti, tummo, or kundalini. It is also believed that undergoing sexual sublimation can facilitate a mystical awakening in an individual.
Sublimation according to Jung
C. G. Jung believed sublimation to be mystical in nature, thus differing fundamentally from Freud's view of the concept. For Freud, sublimation helped explain the plasticity of the sexual instincts (and their convertibility to non-sexual ends). The concept also underpinned his psychoanalytical theories which showed the human psyche at the mercy of conflicting impulses (such as the super-ego and the id). Jung criticized Freud for obscuring the alchemical origins of sublimation and for attempting instead to make the concept appear scientifically credible:
Sublimatio is part of the royal art where the true gold is made. Of this Freud knows nothing, worse still, he barricades all the paths that could lead to true sublimatio. This is just about the opposite of what Freud understands by sublimation. It is not a voluntary and forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application, but an alchymical transformation for which fire and prima materia are needed. Sublimatio is a great mystery. Freud has appropriated this concept and usurped it for the sphere of the will and the bourgeois, rationalistic ethos.
This criticism extends from the private sphere of his correspondence (as above) to specific papers he published on psychoanalysis:
Freud invented the idea of sublimation to save us from the imaginary claws of the unconscious. But what is real, what actually exists, cannot be alchemically sublimated, and if anything is apparently sublimated it never was what a false interpretation took it to be.
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- One of the best known examples in Western literature is in Thomas Mann's novella, Death in Venice, where the protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer, sublimates his desire for an adolescent boy into writing poetry.
- In Psychological Science: Mind, Brain and Behavior, by Michael Gazzaniga and Todd F. Heatherton, a more sinister example is given in which a sadist becomes a surgeon or a dentist - A direct example of this is in the musical and movie Little Shop of Horrors characterized in the descriptively sadist character of Orin Scrivello who follows his mother's advice to become a dentist, quoting her "You'll find a way/to make your natural tendencies pay (...) Son, be a dentist/People will pay you to be inhumane."
- Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None features a villain whose line of work as a judge, dealing out harsh sentences to guilty criminals, had previously permitted him to sublimate his homicidal urges.
- Sexual transmutation was quoted on Napoleon Hill's book " Think and Grow Rich " and is illustrated as a principle of success.
- In the allegorical poem Wind in the Afternoon by Dr Tapan Kumar Pradhan, the feeble attempt of human beings at sexual sublimation has been symbolically described through the imagery of two ogling streetside onlookers following the movement of a sanitary napkin and an empty tea carton being blown away during a sandstorm.
- Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and Its Discontents’ (1930) in The Standard Edition Of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud – The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, trans. by James Strachey (Hogarth Press; London, 1961), vol. XXI, 79–80
- Wade, Carol and Carol Tavris, Psychology, Sixth Edition (Prentice Hall, 2000) 478. ISBN 0-321-04931-4
- Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (Karnac Books, 2011), p. 44
- Geller, J.(2009). "Of Snips . . . and Puppy Dog Tails": Freud's Sublimation of Judentum. American Imago66(2), 169-184. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved April 6, 2012, from Project MUSE database.
- Swami Sivananda Saraswati. "Brahmacharya (Celibacy)". Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Samael Aun Weor. "The Transmutation of Sexual Energy". Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. "Cognizantability: Section 2, The Basic Laws of Transmutation". Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Swami Sivananda Saraswati. "Techniques of Sex Sublimation". Archived from the original on 2006-07-17. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Swami Krishnananda Saraswati. "Brahmacharya – An Outlook of Consciousness". Archived from the original on 2006-06-15. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Swami Chidananda. "The Role of Celibacy in the Spiritual Life". Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- Carl Jung, Letters, ed. By G. Adler and A. Jaffé (Princeton University Press; Princeton, 1974), vol. 1, 171
- C. G. Jung, Dreams: (From Volumes 4, 8, 12, and 16 of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung),(Princeton University Press, 2012), p.100