Can Sublimation be brought about through Idealization?

Ethical Perspectives 14 (1):53-78 (2007)
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Abstract

I argue that idealization can throw a new light upon Freud’s theory of sublimation and that courtly love can be seen as an illustration of this suggestion. For Freud sublimation is the process in which the sexual aim of the instincts is diverted towards a non-sexual aim that is still related with the original one. Freud’s theory struggles with at least two problems.The first problem regards the relation between the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem. Freud describes this relation with different terms. The notion of ‘desexualization’ represents precisely what he has in mind. This term propounds that Freud understands sublimation as a one-sided movement that consists in leaving behind the original sexual aim. Courtly love proves that desexualization, as Freud understands it, is not a necessary condition for sublimation. A weakening of Freud’s strong claim concerning desexualization implies however that the distinction between sublimation and perversion is not always clearcut.The second problem appertains to the processes that bring about the transformation of the sexual aim. Courtly love infers that idealization of the love-object can play an important role in bringing about sublimation. The kind of sublimation that corresponds to courtly love is what has been called Verführung in German Idealism.Psychoanalytic theory is not willing to conceive idealization in this sense. According to the classical psychoanalytic theory, idealization produces repression of sexual instincts. I argue that this idea is counter-intuitive and that Freud’s understanding of idealization is more subtle. I give a short overview of Freud’s approach and I draw attention to some elements in his approach that help us to describe the direct link between idealization and sublimation.Idealization of the beloved can go together with an inhibition of sexual instincts. But it is wrong to identify aim-inhibition with repression or with a softening of the instincts. My suggestion is that the interaction between idealization and sublimation can be characterised as an interaction between an intensification of the sexual instincts, as it happens in any form of falling in love, and an inhibition of them.This interaction results in being lifted up above the sexual instincts that are caused by the idealised object. In religion and art, the double movement of the instincts is called ‘exaltation.’

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