Difference between revisions of "Sublimation"

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The full title of the doctoral thesis that signaled Jacques Lacan's entry into psychiatry was De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (On paranoiac psychosis as it relates to the personality). The work was dated September 7, 1932, when Lacan was thirty-one years old.
Readers of the work were uniformly impressed with the breadth of scientific learning that Lacan displayed. To Georges Heuyer, who had doubts about the sheer quantity of bibliographical references, Lacan responded that he had, in fact, read them all. Furthermore, Lacan claimed to have personally evaluated about forty cases. And his familiarity with German texts clearly distinguished his scholarship from the chauvinism characteristic of the two great schools of psychiatry of the time. The French school was his model because of the high quality of its observation and because of its elegance and precision. But the Germans supplied Lacan with the doctrinal authority required by his goal of methodological synthesis.
"Then came Kraepelin" (Lacan, 1932, p. 23). Emil Kraepelin succeeded in imposing differential diagnoses in the field of the psychoses, where previously the category of paranoia had been extended to every kind of delusion and cognitive disorder in a way clearly contradicted by observation, despite the fact that paranoia was defined very narrowly. Lacan wrote in glowing terms of Johannes Lange, coauthor of the 1927 edition of Kraepelin's Manual of Psychiatry, whose study of eighty-one cases noted that classical paranoia was extremely rare, and assigned the curable cases to the category delineated by Kraepelin. As for "genuine paranoia," the question was whether it could be acute, whether remissions were possible. This was a question that Lacan asked from the outset (1932) and that would still preoccupy him twenty-five years later in "On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis" (1959/2004). For Lacan, the work of Robert Gaupp supplied an affirmative answer to this question. In short, Lacan endorsed Kraepelin's inclination toward a psychogenetic conception of paranoia, and what Lacan called "psychogeny" became a main theme of his thesis. Hence Lacan's harsh criticism of organicism, the constitutional theory, and the ideology of degeneracy—all then still prevalent in French psychiatry.
To stymie these tendencies, Lacan chose to speak of "personality." To solidify this notion, he drew upon Ernst Kretschmer, Pierre Janet, Karl Jaspers, and, finally, Eugen Bleuler. Bleuler and the Zurich school were Lacan's main route into psychoanalysis from the psychiatric study of the psychoses. Lacan sought to relate mental disturbances to personality, as Janet did, and, like Kretschmer, to explain them in terms of the individual's history and "experience" (Erlebnis) (1932, p. 92), with "its social and ethical stresses," rather than by evoking "congenital defects" (1932, p. 243). All this implied a "comprehensive" approach to psychotics consonant with the phenomenology of Jaspers. For this reason, Lacan enlisted the masters of psychiatry and psychopathology in support the open-minded approach to mental illness characteristic of his friends at the journal L'évolution psychiatrique.
Lacan argued that pathological manifestations in psychosis were "total vital responses," which, as "functions of the personality," maintained meaningful connections with the human community (1932, p. 247). In short, they were meaningful—a realization that defined the young Lacan's approach and influenced the choice of his inaugural case, that of "Aimée."
Aimée was a thirty-eight-year-old woman who, with "eyes filled with the fires of hate" (1932, p. 153), had tried to stab the celebrated actress Huguette Duflos. As a result of this attempted "magnicide" on April 18, 1931, she was immediately imprisoned. Lacan began to see her one month later at Sainte-Anne Hospital. He reconstructed "almost the full gamut of paranoid themes" (1932, p. 158): persecution, jealousy, and prejudice for the most part, themes of grandeur centered chiefly on dreams of escape and a reformatory idealism, along with traces of erotomania. Her cognitive functions were unaffected. To this classic picture, which Lacan established by means of thorough biographical inquiry, Lacan added what he considered a decisive consideration: after twenty days of incarceration, the patient's delusional state diminished dramatically. This development Lacan viewed as evidence of the acute nature of her paranoia. Connecting Aimée's criminal act with this remission, he set out to discover the meaning of her pathology, and with this in mind he proposed a new diagnostic category: "self-punishment paranoia."
Aimée also aroused Lacan's curiosity because of her attempts at writing. Lacan had already evinced an interest in the writing of psychotics, and in his thesis (1932) he published selected passages from "Aimée"—the name being that of the heroine of the patient's projected novel. Aimée's writings and the sensational aspects her case brought Lacan's work to the attention of a public well beyond psychiatry. The spirit of the times saw links among art, madness, and psychoanalysis. The dreams related by André Breton in Communicating Vessels date from 1931, and his exchange of letters with Freud, which followed the publication of this book, date from 1932. René Crevel, PaulÉluard, Salvador Dalí, Joë Bousquet all echoed Lacan's thesis. In 1933, in the first issue of the Surrealist magazine Minotaure, Dalí cited "Jacques Lacan's admirable thesis" and praised the thesis of "the paranoiac mechanism as the force and power acting at the very root of the phenomenon of personality." Lacan took pride in this acknowledgment. In hisÉcrits (1966), he described his thesis as merely an introduction to "paranoiac knowledge" (p. 65), an unmistakable allusion to Dalí's "paranoiac-critical method." He never revised this attitude: as late as December 16, 1975, he declared, "Paranoid psychosis and personality have no relationship because they are one and the same thing."
Left-wing philosophers likewise fell under the spell of Lacan's book. Paul Nizan, a careful reader of Jaspers, published a summary of it the communist daily L'humanité for February 10, 1933; Lacan's talk of a "concrete" psychology related to "social reality" sufficed to open that particular door. Jean Bernier, in La critique social, a journal to the left of the Communist Party, offered a brilliant reading of Lacan's thesis, despite being marred by misunderstandings of psychoanalysis so common among revolutionary critics.
Lacan's doctoral thesis was significant in another way too: it was his declaration of allegiance to psychoanalysis. He undertook a personal analysis and trained under the auspices of the recently established Société psychanalytique de Paris (Paris Psychoanalytic Society). In his thesis, he hailed "the scientific import of Freudian doctrine," the only theory capable of apprehending the "true nature of pathology," as opposed to other methods, which, despite their "very valuable observational syntheses," failed to clear up uncertainties (1932, p. 255). Lacan's study of the case of Aimée and his overall view of the psychoses were thoroughly imbued with Freudian teachings. Thus he saw the psychogenesis of Aimée's pathology in light of the theory of the development of the libido, as rounded out a few years earlier by Karl Abraham (1924/1927). And he understood delusion as the unconscious offering itself to the understanding of consciousness. "Ça joue au clair," Lacan reiterated in his seminar on the psychoses (1981/1993, session of 25 January 1956).
For Lacan, the notion of personality certainly implied "a conception of oneself" (1932, p. 42), but in his view this conception was based on "ideal" images brought up into consciousness. Under the acknowledged influence of Angelo Hesnard and René Laforgue's report to the Fifth Conference of French-Speaking Psychoanalysts in June 1930, Lacan advanced his hypothesis of psychosis as "self-punishment" under the influence of the superego. He suggested that a nosological distinction be drawn for cases where an element of hate and a "combative attitude" turn back upon the subject in the shape of self-accusation and self-depreciation, and concluded by proposing the category of "psychoses of the super-ego," to include contentious and self-punishing forms of paranoia (1932, p. 338).
The most striking aspect of Lacan's thesis, in the context of the time, was the evidence it offered of his solid Freudian grounding, gleaned in part, no doubt, from his translation into French, in that same year of 1932, of Freud's paper "Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality" (1922b [1921]). What Lacan drew from this important work underlay his assertion that "Aimée's entire delusion" could "be understood as an increasingly centrifugal displacement of a hate whose direct object she wished to misapprehend" (1932, p. 282). At the beginning of his discussion, Lacan derived a general proposition from the same source: "The developmental distance, according to Freud, that separates the homosexual drive, the cause of traumatic repression, from the point of narcissistic fixation, which reveals a completed regression, is a measure of the seriousness of the psychosis in any given case" (1932, p. 262).
The case of Aimée continued to play a part in Lacan's life. For one, he had good cause to remember it when, years later, Aimée turned out to be the mother of one of his patients, the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu. Furthermore, the themes explored in De la psychose paranoïaque continued to preoccupy him in his later work. Most significantly, his resolutely psychoanalytic approach to the psychoses was confirmed by his defining work of the 1950s (1993, 2004), whose great theoretical import was rivaled only by what he called "fidelity to the formal envelope of the symptom" (1966, p. 66). This remark does far more than endorse the precepts of a grand clinical tradition; it distills certain constants of Lacan's thinking. As he adds in the same passage, the formal envelope of the symptom may stretch to a "limit where it reverses direction and becomes creative." This was a crucial issue for Lacan throughout his life, and in many different ways. The culmination of this concern was his engagement with the work of James Joyce, which informed his seminar of 1975-1976 on the "sinthome" (1976-1977). On the same page ofÉcrits (p. 66), Lacan, reviewing his own past itinerary, described what might be considered the function of the symptom: to keep up, despite the ever-present risk of slipping, with what he called "confronting the abyss." Psychosis exemplified such confrontation, which was why Lacan returned here to how "passing to the act" may serve to "fan the fire" of delusion—an original theme explored in his thesis. How such acts relate to literary creation, the function of the symptom, and passing to the act were thus just so many issues first broached in the case of Aimée.
See also: Anzieu, Didier; Bleuler, Paul Eugen;Évolution psychiatrique (l' -) (Developments in Psychiatry); Lacan, Jacques-MarieÉmile; Paranoia.
    * Abraham, Karl. (1927). A short study of the development of the libido, viewed in the light of mental disorders. In Selected Papers of Karl Abraham (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1924)
    * Allouch, Jean. (1994). Marguerite, ou l'aimée de Lacan (rev. ed.). Paris: E.P.E.L.
    * Dalí, Salvador. (1933). Le mythe tragique de l'Angélus de Millet. Minotaure, 1.
    * Freud, Sigmund. (1922b [1921]). Some neurotic mechanisms in jealousy, paranoia, and homosexuality. SE: 18: 221-232.
    * Lacan, Jacques. (1932). De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité. Paris: Librairie le François.
    * ——. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.
    * ——. (1976-1977). Le séminaire XXIII, 1975-76: Le sinthome. Ornicar? 2-5.
    * ——. (1993). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 3: The psychoses, 1955-1956 (Russell Grigg, Trans.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1981)
    * ——. (2002). On a question prior to any possible treatment of psychosis. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1959)

Revision as of 12:21, 10 June 2006

Sublimation is a process that diverts the flow of instinctual energy from its immediate sexual aim and subordinates it to cultural endeavors.

The idea of sublimation leads back at once to the alchemical metaphor of the transmutation of base metal into gold, and to aesthetics, which from the ancient world (Longinus) to Romanticism (Goethe) saw the sublime as the transcendence of the individual's limitations. The concept evolved in Freud's work from the idea of the ennoblement or embellishment of a fantasy (Draft L [1950a (1895)]) to that of a genuine intra-instinctual process, the transformation of object libido into ego libido before it could assume new aims (1923b).

The unresolved complexity of the notion of sublimation means, however, that the term designates a set of questions rather than a well-circumscribed concept (Laplanche, 1980).

Sublimation would appear to be a very special vicissitude of the instinct, for its diversion of libidinal energy harnesses instinctual impulses in a way congenial to the superego and its society. Retransformation is possible, however, and therein the original instinctual force may regain the upper hand (resexualization of sublimated homosexual impulses (1911c [1910])). Desexualization alone cannot define the process of sublimation, which is not to be confused with inhibition or reaction formations, even if it plays a fundamental role because of its ability to exchange an originally sexual aim for another, which is its "psychical parent" (1908d).

As for the effect of sublimation on the object it valorizes in the eyes of society, Freud took great care to discourage any risk of confusion between sublimation and idealization, the latter implying an overestimation of the supposedly "sublime" object (1914c).

The development of the ability to sublimate ("Fähigkeit zur Sublimierung") was related for Freud both to the individual's constitutional disposition (the initial strength of the sexual instinct) and to the events of childhood (the link between trauma and the intensity of infantile curiosity; cf., the case of Leonardo da Vinci being a good example). Sublimation occurred at the expense of the polymorphously perverse drives of childhood (especially bisexuality), which were diverted and applied to other aims, as witness the sublimation of anal eroticism into an interest in money, or the link between urethral eroticism and ambition. This process contributed to the formation of character traits. The component instincts were of particular significance here: the instinct to see could be sublimated into artistic contemplation and into the instinct to know (1910c), while sublimated aggression could manifest itself as creative and innovative activity.

But Freud always emphasized the risks associated with sublimation of the instincts when it takes place at the expense of the sexual and deprives the subject of immediate satisfaction. Although sublimation appears as the guarantor of the social bond and promoter of culture, it is, nonetheless, a dangerous demand, a "ruse of civilization" (Mellor-Picaut, 1979) when it presents individual sublimations as ideal models. For Freud, sublimation is not the core of an axiological approach to psychoanalysis, and the introduction of narcissism represented an important turning point in his theory. Sublimation took place "through the mediation of the ego, which begins by changing sexual object-libido into narcissistic libido, and then perhaps goes on to give it a different aim" (1923b, p. 30). Sublimation no longer occurs at the expense of the object-libido but offers the narcissistic libido a needed extension. However, it does not protect the individual, who is left at the mercy of the death instinct.

Freud was against making sublimation a privileged goal of the treatment, one that could even be advocated by the analyst (1915a [1914]). In this, he disagreed with Carl G. Jung (1914d), as well as Lou Andreas-Salomé, whom he had also accused of "blab-bering about the ideal" in his letters to Jung (January 10, 1912), James J. Putnam (May 4, 1911), and Oskar Pfister (October 9, 1918). In all these cases he was struggling against the temptation of an anagogic approach to psychoanalysis. It may be assumed that this threat of having such a complex concept corrupted contributed to the fact that it has never been thoroughly developed. One thinks in particular of an unpublished draft on sublimation written for Freud's projected book on metapsychology.

The concept of sublimation has been discussed by many of Freud's followers, though without any significant contributions being made to metapsychology. In later years Melanie Klein became one of the most important commentators on sublimation, primarily in connection with epistemophilia. In France, Daniel Lagache (1962) and Jean Laplanche (1980) have both written essays on sublimation.

Sublimation, which is often mentioned in the literature, by emphasizing the desexualization of goals and the social valorization of the object, remains both an essential concept and an unresolved question for psychoanalysis.


See also: Anality; Analytic psychology; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Applied psychoanalysis and the interactions of psychoanalysis; Character; Civilization (Kultur); Defense; Depressive position; Desexualization; Drive; Ego; Ego autonomy; Ego and the Id, The; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, The; Eroticism, anal; Eroticism, urethral; Friendship; Group psychology; ; Idealization; Identification with the aggressor; Ideology; Intellectualization; Knowledge (instinct for); Latency period; Law of the Father; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood; Pleasure ego/reality ego; Pleasure of thinking; Psychic apparatus; Reaction formation; Reciprocal paths of influence (libidinal coexcitation); Reparation; Repetition; Rite and ritual; Science and psychoanalysis; Sexuality; Superego; Symbol; Symbolization, process of; Thought; Work (as a psychoanalytic concept); Working-off mechanisms. Bibliography

   * Freud. Sigmund. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.
   * ——. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.
   * ——. (1915a [1914]). Observations on transference love. (Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis III). SE, 12: 157-171.
   * ——. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.
   * ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
   * ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
   * Lagache, Daniel. (1984). La sublimation et les valeurs. In Oeuvres completes 5. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (Original work published 1962)
   * Laplanche, Jean. (1980). Problématiques III, la sublimation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Mellor-Picaut, Sophie. (1979). La sublimation ruse de la civilisation. Psychanalyseà l'Université, 4.

Further Reading

   * Arlow, Jacob, rep. (1955). Panel: Sublimation. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 3, 515-527.
   * Kris, Ernst. (1955). Neutralization and sublimation. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 10, 30-46.
   * Loewald, Hans W. (1988). Sublimation: Inquiries into theoretical psychoanalysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.


The term 'sublimation' (Fr. sublimation) is one of the most familiar terms in the vocabulary of psychoanalysis.

Sublimation and Freud

Sigmund Freud never developed a coherent theory (or account) of sublimation.

Sublimation is a term widely used in psychoanalytic theory to describe the process in which the libido sexual drive (psychic or erotic energy) is channelled, converted, transformed into an apparently non-sexual activity, such as artistic creation and intellectual work, or redirected, diverted toward an apparently non-sexual aim or a socially valued object, such as artistic creation and intellectual work, into creative and intellectual activity, into "socially useful" achievements.[1]

Sublimation is a type of coping mechanism or defense mechanism, which functions as a socially acceptable escape valve for excess sexual or erotic energy which would otherwise have to be discharged in socially unacceptable forms (perverse behaviour) or in neurotic symptoms. Erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression.

The logical conclusion of such a view is that complete sublimation would mean the end of all perversion and all neurosis. Civilization has been able to place "social aims higher than the sexual ones."[2]

Sublimation and Art

This usage appears to be influenced by the aesthetics of the sublime. In his study of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud uses 'sublimation' in this sense to describe the transformation of theyoung Leonardo's sexual curiosity into a spirit of intellectual inquiry.[3] Whilst this produced great works of art, the sublimation of libido into a general urge to know meant that a small quota of Leonardo's sexual ennergy was directe dtowards sexual aims, and resulted in a stunted adult sexuality. Elsewhere Frud suggests tht a mature woman's capacity to pursue an intellectual profession may be a sublimated expression of her childhood desire to acquire a penis.

Sublimation and Lacan

Lacan's account of sublimation differs from Freud's on a number of points.

  1. Freud argues that sublimation is only necessary because this direct satisfaction of the drive (although theoretically possible) is prohibited by society.
  1. Freud's account implies that perverse sexuality as a form of direct satisfaction of the drive is possible, and that sublimation is only necessary because this direct form is prohibited by society.

Lacan conceives of perversion in a highly structured relation to the drives which are already, in themselves, linguistic rather than biological forces.[4]

  1. Whereas Freud believed that complete sublimation might be possible for some particularly refined or cultured people, Lacan argues that "complete sublimation is not possible for the individual."[5]

This is not to say that the "free mobility of the libido" (Introductory Lectures 16.346) is ever fully contained: "sublimation is never able to deal with more than a certain fraction of libido."[6]

  1. In Freud's account, sublimation involves the redirection of the drive to a different (non-sexual) object.

In Lacan's account, sublimation does not involve directing the drive to a different object, but rather changing the (position of the object in the structure of fantasy) nature of the object to which the drive was already directed, a "change of object in itself," something which is made possible because the drive is "already deeply marked by the articulation of the signifier."[7] The sublime quality of an object is thus not due to any intrinsic property of the object itself, but simply an effect of the object's position in the symbolic structure of fantasy. Sublimation relocates an object in the position of the thing. The Lacanian formula for sublimation is thus that "it raises an object ... to the dignity of the Thing."[8]

  1. Lacan (following Freud) associates sublimation with creativity and art, but also links it with the death drive.[9]
    1. Firstly, the concept of the death drive is itself seen as a product of Freud's own sublimation.[10]
    2. Secondly, the death drive is not only a "destruction drive," but also a "will to create from zero."[11]
    3. Thirdly, the sublime object, through being elevated to the dignity of the Thing, exerts a power of fascination which leads ultimately to death and destruction.

Sublimation and Ethics

In his 1959-60 seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan emphasizes the element of social recognition as central to the concept, and reflects upon the dimension of shared social values (towards which the sublimated drives are diverted) in his discussion of ethics.[12]


See Also


  1. Freud 1933
  2. Introductory Lectures 16.345
  3. 1910a
  4. see Zizek, 1991: 83-4)
  5. S7, 91
  6. Introductory Lectures 16.346
  7. S7, 293
  8. S7, l 12
  9. S4, 431
  10. S7, 212
  11. S7, 212-13
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. p. 107, 144
  13. Seminar XI sublimation, 11, 165