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Oceanic feeling

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After reading The Future of an Illusion (1927c), in a letter dated December 5, 1927, Romain Rolland wrote to Freud: "By religious feeling, what I mean—altogether independently of any dogma, any Credo, any organization of the Church, any Holy Scripture, any hope for personal salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of 'the eternal' (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and as if oceanic). This feeling is in truth subjective in nature. It is a contact." (Vermorel and Vermorel, 1993, p. 304)

The notion of an oceanic feeling derives on the one hand from the writings of Baruch Spinoza, who criticized religion but, with his "third degree of knowledge," retained "the intellectual love of God," and on the other hand from Rolland's studies on Indian mysticism: The Life of Ramakrishna (1929/1931) and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (1930/1947). He sent these works to Freud, providing him with a name for a concept hitherto latent in his thinking.

In the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]) Freud located the oceanic feeling within the primitive ego—more precisely, within primary narcissism and the ego ideal—which is later reduced to a "shrunken residue" (p. 68) under the influence of reality. Freud compared that ego to the vestiges of ancient Rome lying beneath the constructions of later centuries; and Rolland, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man whose writings are so immersed in the universal Mother that the role of the father in the Oedipus complex is circumvented, sensed that Freud's reference to the Eternal City, to Rome and the Romans, betokened a primal maternal transference.

Upon receiving Rolland's letter, Freud experienced a mixture of excitement ("your letter has left me without any rest") and, it would seem, paralyzing shock, for it took him two years to write a response to Roll-and's letter and another two years to send it—which might be interpreted as a transferential reliving of the trauma of the premature death of his baby brother Julius when he himself was two years old. There was an unconscious complicity between Freud and Rolland, who had also been wounded by grief in childhood: Rolland's Journey Within (1942/1947), begun immediately after his visit to Freud, started with this event and was mirrored by Freud's "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis (An Open Letter to Romain Rolland on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday)," addressed to Rolland in 1936, which was the ultimate self-analysis of his relations with his father and also with the "dead mother."

Freud later acknowledged that he had not done justice to religion and its "historical truth." In response to Rolland, "one of the twelve men upon whom rests the destiny of the world," he gave free rein to his fantasy of being the Moses of psychoanalysis; in retrospect, his trajectory can be considered as an approach, within the individual unconscious, to the sacred, where he had taken refuge after the "death of God."

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
  2. ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
  3. ——. (1936a). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis (An open letter to Romain Rolland on the occasion of his seventieth birthday). SE, 22: 239-248.
  4. ——. (1939a [1934-38]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.
  5. ——. (1931). The Life of Ramakrishna (E. F. Malcolm-Smith, Trans.). Mayavati, Almora, Himalayas: Advaita Ashrama. (Original work published 1929) ——. (1947). The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (E. F. Malcolm-Smith, Trans.). Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama. (Original work published 1930)
  6. ——. (1947). Journey within (Elsie Pell, Trans.). New York: Philosophical Library. (Original work published 1942)