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The End of Narcissism: Re-Visioning The Oceanic Feeling

The End of Narcissism: Re-Visioning The Oceanic Feeling

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Published by Christopher Cordry
My final paper for CP504: Freud's Depth Psychology.
My final paper for CP504: Freud's Depth Psychology.

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Published by: Christopher Cordry on Dec 06, 2011
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03/03/2014

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 As a child growing up in San Diego, I could see the Pacific Ocean from my back yard. I remember gazing out past the harbor and the big Navy ships, out to the horizon,knowing that somewhere out there were the Hawaiian islands, somewhere out there wasAsia; that past that place where blue faded into blue, a whole world awaited me. Iremember feeling an intense longing for that wider world, combined with a deep sense of  peace, of stillness, of being part of a larger whole. This same feeling would come over me even in my teens and my college years, whenever I found myself gazing out to sea.Thus it was with some interest that I first read Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of hisfriend Romain Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” in the opening pages of 
Civilization and its Discontents
(1930/1989).
 
Although Rolland’s experiences did not precisely match myown, I felt some sort of kinship of feeling with Rolland, a sense that perhaps we sharedsome intuition about the world and our place in it as human beings. And yet, after reading Freud’s interpretation of this experience, I was left with a sense of unease, notonly because of the interpretation itself, but also because Freud’s description of theoceanic feeling, on which that interpretation was based, seemed troublingly vague. Ifound myself making notes in the margins: what was the oceanic feeling, really? Was it,as Freud argued, a holdover from the primary narcissism of the infant? Or was itsomething more, something greater than that?The passage in question, at the beginning of 
Civilization and its Discontents
, isonly tangentially related to the rest of the book. In it, Freud responds to a criticism of his
 
earlier work,
The Future of an Illusion
, by his aforementioned friend, Romain Rolland.Rolland, a French writer and mystic, had praised
The Future of an Illusion
for its critiqueof the naive religious beliefs of the majority, but entreated Freud to turn his attention towhat Rolland considered to be the true source of religious feeling, namely, a certainfeeling of eternity, of oneness with the whole of existence: the “oceanic feeling” (Freud1930/1989). Freud’s interpretation of the oceanic feeling as a return to the “limitlessnarcissism” of the infant is well known, and it went mostly unquestioned by later  psychoanalytic writers (Epstein, 1995, p. 2). In this paper, I will argue that Freudmisinterpreted the oceanic feeling, and that the oceanic feeling as described by Rolland isnot a survival from preconventional infantile narcissism but an adaptive, postconventional developmental state that can be more adequately interpreted in the lightof contemporary psychoanalytic and transpersonal theories.Although Freud was a lifelong atheist, he counted a number of deeply religiousmen among his friends and colleagues, including Oscar Pfister and Carl Jung (Gay,1987). Romain Rolland was another of these spiritual friends. Rolland was a NobelPrize winning writer, a peace activist, and a lifelong mystic who became an early Westernenthusiast of the Indian yogic tradition. Freud was a great admirer of Rolland,and
 
Rolland, in turn, prided himself on being one of the first Frenchmen to take a seriousinterest in Freud’s work (Fisher, 1976). Freud and Rolland shared a mutual horror of thedevastation wrought by the Great War and a mutual concern with the avoidance of suchcatastrophic international violence in the future. The two men, however, could not have been more different in their personalities or in their orientations toward the spiritual life.2
 
Thus in a 1931 letter to Rolland, Freud wrote “…I have rarely experienced thatmysterious attraction of one human being for another as vividly as I have with you; it issomehow bound up, perhaps, with the awareness of our being so different.” (Fisher,1976).It is no wonder then that when Freud sent Rolland a copy of 
The Future of an Illusion
, Rolland responded with at least one small criticism. Rolland, who hadrenounced his allegiance to the Catholic Church as a teenager (Parsons, 1998), actuallyagreed with Freud’s assessment of the naive beliefs to which most religious peoplesubscribed. His personal religious feelings, however, had less to do with dogma andinstead found their source in the mystical experiences that played such a large part in theformation of his character and his life’s work (Parsons, 1998). Freud responded toRolland’s ideas in his well-known introduction to
Civilization and its Discontents
(1930/1989):“I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answeredthat he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry Ihad not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, hesays, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without.... It is afeeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded--as it were, ‘oceanic’.” (p. 723)Freud notes that Rolland’s letter “caused me no small difficulty,” especially because “Icannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.” (p. 723). Freud’s inability to experiencethe oceanic feeling was consistent with his personality structure. After all, he could noteven bear to listen to music, since it threatened his rigid ego with feelings he could notunderstand rationally (Fisher, 1976). If Freud’s ego was threatened by music, no wonder he was troubled by Rolland’s description of a “limitless, unbounded” experience of being.3

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