Instinct and the Unconscious/Sublimation

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Instinct and the Unconscious by W.H.R.Rivers
Chapter XIX. Sublimation

I have so far considered only the conflicts arising out of the activity of instinctive tendencies as agencies in the production of pathological states or of states, such as hypnotism, which lie outside the ordinary lines of human activity. I cannot leave the subject without some indication of the part which these conflicts may take in some of the more useful and beautiful aspects of life. Hitherto we have considered the solution of conflicts by such crude means as paralysis, delusion or crank, but if properly directed the conflict may have a very different outcome.

The main purpose of this book has been to consider the success and failure of suppression as a means of dealing with instinctive tendencies out of harmony with the needs of social life. I have said nothing of a process, which not only forms one of the chief therapeutic agencies by means of which we try to meet the failures of suppression, but is one which underlies success in all the higher accomplishments of life, especially in art, science, and religion. In this process which is called sublimation, the energy arising out of conflict is diverted from some channel which leads in an asocial or antisocial direction, and turned into one leading to an end connected with the higher ideals of society.

We are accustomed to think of sublimation as a process of a more or less artificial kind, by which the physician directs the energy of a conflict into a channel more healthy and beneficent than that it has taken under the influence of those natural forces we denote collectively by the term "disease." We are accustomed to speak of this therapeutic process as re-education, [p. 157] and this is a most appropriate term, for it is essentially of the same order as the process of education in childhood which consists, or should consist, in the direction of innate or instinctive tendencies towards an end in harmony with the highest good of the society of which the child is to be an active member. Childhood is one long conflict between individual instinctive tendencies and the social traditions and ideals of society. Whether the outcome of this conflict is to be a genius or a paranoiac; a criminal or a philanthropist; a good citizen or a wastrel; depends in some measure, we do not yet know with any degree of exactness in what measure, on education, on the direction which is given by the environment, material, psychological and social, to the energy engendered in the conflicts made necessary by the highly complex character of the past history of our race.

To some of those who have been studying, during the last few years, the nervous and mental havoc produced by the ravages of warfare, one great interest lies in the light which this study has thrown on the process of education. Through our work we have been led to see how great a part is taken in the formation of character by influences, especially those of early childhood, which do not lie on the surface but are embedded in the unconscious strata of the mind.

In concluding this book I should like to suggest the possibility that the unconscious may have a still wider scope. Many lines of evidence are converging to show that all great accomplishment in human endeavour depends on processes which go on outside those regions of the mind of the activity of which we are clearly conscious. There is reason to believe that the processes which underlie all great work in art, literature, or science, take place unconsciously, or at least unwittingly. It is an interesting question to ask whence comes the energy of which this work is the expression. There are two chief possibilities; one, that it is derived from the instinctive tendencies which, through the action of controlling forces, fail to find their normal outlet; the other, that the energy so arising is increased in amount through the conflict between controlled and controlling [p. 158] forces. Many pathological facts, and especially the general diminution of bodily energy accompanying so many forms of psycho-neurosis, point to the truth of the second alternative. Whatever be the source of the energy, however, we can be confident that by the process of sublimation the lines upon which it is expended take a special course, and in such case it is not easy to place any limit to its activity. We do not know how high the goal that it may reach.

We have, I think, reason to believe that the person who has attained perfection of balance in the control of his instinctive tendencies, in whom the processes of suppression and sublimation have become wholly effective, may thereby become completely adapted to his environment and attain a highly peaceful and stable existence. Such existence is not, however, the condition of exceptional accomplishment, for which there would seem to be necessary a certain degree of instability of the unconscious and subconscious strata of the mind which form the scene of the conflict between instinctive tendencies and the forces by which they are controlled. During the last few years we have been driven to attend to the instability produced by the conditions of war in its rôle as the producer of disease. Now that the struggle is over, I believe that we may look to this instability as the source of energy from which we may expect great accomplishments in art and science. It may be also that, through this instability, new strength will be given to those movements which under the most varied guise express the deep craving for religion which seems to be universal among Mankind.