The Enigma of Sublimation

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In a broader context, sublimation can be seen as an aspect of the corporeal imagination. As described earlier, feelings, by means of metaphor, can be displaced, conflated, and transformed. I find sublimation to be an obscure and somewhat muddled concept that encompasses two different ideas. Our direct response to works of art, which may consist of joy, anxiety, sadness, disgust, anger, and so forth, can be thought of as a form of sublimation The term sublimation refers not only to the awakening of these aesthetic feelings but also to the process that transforms these feelings into something that is deemed to be "higher," to say, culturally valuable. Understanding the details of this process remains a challenging problem.

Originally, the term sublimation referred to the method used by an alchemist in which a "base" metal is heated to yield something "higher" or more sublime. Freud retained the idea of transforming something base into something higher or sublime by defining sublimation as the transformation of the "base" instinct eros into "higher" cultural achievements.3 The alchemist, through sublimation, attempted to transform a base metal into gold. A familiar Freudian example of sublimation would be the fact that a child's interest in feces can be transformed, can be sublimated, into an adult's interest in money. Sublimation, according to Freud, consists of the diversion of a partial drive or instinct from its original aim. When Freud thought of sublimation as a diversion and transformation of eros, he was combining both his belief in the synthetic function of the libido with the romantic notion that sexual energy is the primordial force behind our species' highest achievements.

Freud's best known illustration of sublimation can be found in his essay on Leonardo de Vinci, where Freud described how Leonardo's voyeuristic, childish sexual curiosity was transformed into scientific curiosity. Freud wrote, "The child's sexual impulses are powerful enough to sexual-ize thinking itself and to color intellectual operations with pleasure and anxiety that belong to sexual processes proper. Here an investigation becomes a sexual activity, and the feeling that comes from settling things in one's mind and explaining them replaces sexual satisfaction" (1910). Freud could have been talking about himself.

Freud relied on instinct theory to explain sublimation. He understood sublimation to result from a substitution of a "desexualized" aim for a directly erotic aim. But in view of an individual's autonomous corporeal imagination, it would be difficult to maintain a belief in universal entities such as instincts or drives, for each individual interprets the feelings that such "drives" generate in their own particular manner. The idea of "desexualized" instincts cannot account for sublimation. The transformation of feeling, which is at the heart of sublimation, would not be possible without an autonomous metaphoric process. Again, it is to metaphor, rather than instinct, that we must turn in seeking an explanation of sublimation.

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