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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 was Asia; that past that place where blue faded into blue, a whole world awaited me. I remember 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 his friend Romain Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” in the opening pages of Civilization and its Discontents (1930/1989). Although Rolland’s experiences did not precisely match my own, I felt some sort of kinship of feeling with Rolland, a sense that perhaps we shared some 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, not only because of the interpretation itself, but also because Freud’s description of the oceanic feeling, on which that interpretation was based, seemed troublingly vague. I found 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 it something more, something greater than that? The passage in question, at the beginning of Civilization and its Discontents, is only tangentially related to the rest of the book. In it, Freud responds to a criticism of his
2 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 critique of the naive religious beliefs of the majority, but entreated Freud to turn his attention to what Rolland considered to be the true source of religious feeling, namely, a certain feeling of eternity, of oneness with the whole of existence: the “oceanic feeling” (Freud 1930/1989). Freud’s interpretation of the oceanic feeling as a return to the “limitless narcissism” 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 Freud misinterpreted the oceanic feeling, and that the oceanic feeling as described by Rolland is not a survival from preconventional infantile narcissism but an adaptive, postconventional developmental state that can be more adequately interpreted in the light of contemporary psychoanalytic and transpersonal theories. Although Freud was a lifelong atheist, he counted a number of deeply religious men among his friends and colleagues, including Oscar Pfister and Carl Jung (Gay, 1987). Romain Rolland was another of these spiritual friends. Rolland was a Nobel Prize winning writer, a peace activist, and a lifelong mystic who became an early Western enthusiast 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 serious interest in Freud’s work (Fisher, 1976). Freud and Rolland shared a mutual horror of the devastation wrought by the Great War and a mutual concern with the avoidance of such catastrophic 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.
3 Thus in a 1931 letter to Rolland, Freud wrote “…I have rarely experienced that mysterious attraction of one human being for another as vividly as I have with you; it is somehow 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 had renounced his allegiance to the Catholic Church as a teenager (Parsons, 1998), actually agreed with Freud’s assessment of the naive beliefs to which most religious people subscribed. His personal religious feelings, however, had less to do with dogma and instead found their source in the mystical experiences that played such a large part in the formation of his character and his life’s work (Parsons, 1998). Freud responded to Rolland’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 answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without.... It is a feeling 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 “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.” (p. 723). Freud’s inability to experience the oceanic feeling was consistent with his personality structure. After all, he could not even bear to listen to music, since it threatened his rigid ego with feelings he could not understand 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.
4 Rolland, in contrast, not only experienced the oceanic feeling in spontaneous peak experiences, but also cultivated it systematically through his practice of yoga, in reference to which Freud could only quote Schiller’s Diver: "Let him rejoice who breathes up here in the roseate light!” (Parsons, 1998, p. 514). This choice of quotation is telling; it speaks, I think, of Freud’s fear of drowning, as it were, in the abyss beyond ego. It is just this repressed terror of ego-annihilation, of yielding to that which is beyond the self, which Ernest Becker posits as the cause of Freud’s anxiety attacks and fainting spells in his 1973 book The Denial of Death (pp. 96-112). Although Freud was unable to experience the oceanic feeling personally, he acceded that he had no basis for denying “that it does occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion” (Freud, 1930/1989, p. 724). Ultimately, Freud interpreted the oceanic feeling as a “survival of something that was originally there” (p. 725), “a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive--indeed, an all-embracing-feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it” (p. 725) during early infancy. In other words, Rolland’s oceanic feeling was a remnant of a prepersonal stage of development, specifically the primary narcissism of the infant. With this out of the way, Freud goes on to consider the second half of the question at hand: could this oceanic feeling be, as Rolland claimed, the true source of religious feeling?
5 “To me the claim does not seem compelling. After all, a feeling can only be a source of energy if it is itself the expression of a strong need. The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible.... I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” (Freud, 1930/1989, p. 727) Here, the contemporary reader must surely wonder: what about the need for the mother’s affection and nourishment? Given what the study of object relations has taught us about pre-Oedipal development and the infant-mother relationship, not to mention the infant’s biological need for milk, the need for the father’s protection seems almost an afterthought by comparison. It seems odd that this thought would not have occurred to Freud in this context. Contemporary analysts have drawn attention to some of the personal reasons why Freud may have been so hesitant to venture into the pre-Oedipal domain of the mother. Irving B. Harrison, for example, (1979, 1988) argues that Freud, due to his early childhood experiences, developed an ambivalent attitude toward the mother, which later influenced him to focus on the father and the Oedipal situation rather than on the earlier phases of development as he developed his theories. Nevertheless, Freud uses his assertion of the primacy of the father-longing to dismiss the oceanic feeling as the proximate cause for religious sentiment: “Thus the part played by the oceanic feeling, which might seek something like the restoration of limitless narcissism, is ousted from a place in the foreground. The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness. There may be something further beyond that, but for the present it is wrapped in obscurity.” (1930/1989, p. 727) Again, Freud neglects the role of the mother in the biological and affective life of the infant. What else would be “further beyond” the child’s need for its father than its need for its mother? And even beyond the mother, could there not be a deeper origin for the
6 “religious attitude?” Freud does not rule out the possibility, only noting, correctly enough, that for him at the present it was “wrapped in obscurity” (p. 727). But was Freud correct in his interpretation of the oceanic feeling? To answer this question, it might be well to ask--as William B. Parsons does in his 1998 paper, “The Oceanic Feeling Revisited”-- “What was the oceanic feeling?” (p. 502). The description Freud relays in Civilization and its Discontents (1930/1989, p. 723) is certainly vague enough, especially for Freud to base a psychoanalytic interpretation on it. Parsons, in his paper, gives a much a richer description of Rolland’s mystical experiences through reference both to the Freud-Rolland correspondence and to Rolland’s own writings, biographical and otherwise. Rolland wrote, "I had, between the ages of 15 and 20 ... several brief and staggering contacts with the Unity. These obscure illuminations were the key to the spiritual world where I lived for the next forty years” (cited in Parsons, 1998, p. 505). These early mystical episodes occurred in nature, in the French countryside, and consisted of experiences in which Rolland’s sense of self expanded to include the whole of nature. Parsons examines Rolland’s early mystical experiences in detail, noting that they “...fit well with that conception of mysticism, standard in psychological circles since William James's seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which defines mysticism as consisting of transient, ineffable experiences of unity.” (Parsons, 1998, p. 512). Parsons's account of Rolland's early mystical experiences also matches very closely with Ken Wilber's description of the transpersonal peak experiences typical of nature mysticism in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000), especially in Wilber’s discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wilber is also careful to distinguish what he sees as
7 transpersonal, developmentally advanced states like those of Rolland and Emerson from any kind of “regression” or “indissociation” (pp. 293-295). Of such peak experiences, Roger Walsh notes that they “are almost always transient. Only mental training can sustain such experiences and thereby transform them into the higher developmental stages and enduring ways of life that are the goals of contemplative practice” (Walsh, 2011, p. 468). As Parsons (1998) goes on to show, this is precisely what Romain Rolland did in his mature years through his study and practice of yoga. After World War I, Rolland began to delve more deeply into the mystical traditions of both East and West. He was especially drawn to Hindu yoga, and wrote biographies of Gandhi and the modern saints Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, who went on to have such great influence on Western perceptions of Hinduism. In his book The Life of Vivekananda, he described how the mystical experiences of his youth had opened a tiny hole of light in the screen in his mind, and that since then he had tried “to make the hole of light bigger with my fingers” (Rolland, 1965, cited in Parsons, 1998, p. 519). It was to this end, then, that Rolland undertook the practice of yoga. He saw yoga as a “science of the soul” aimed at liberation from the veil of Maya, that is, from the illusions that bind us and separate us from reality as it is (p. 518). Rolland conceived of the spiritual path he followed as one of gradual disenchantment, in which not only the seeker’s pursuit of wisdom, but also the “blows of life” (pp. 521-522) finally liberated him from his illusions and allowed him to dwell in ultimate truth. In his invocation of the “blows of life” as part of this developmental process, Rolland almost begins to sound like
8 John Keats in his famous letter on soul-making. Thus by the time that Rolland penned his fateful letter to Freud on the oceanic feeling, his sense of communion with the world as a whole was no longer a fleeting experience that came and went, but a constant state which he was, as Freud noted, never without. Parsons writes: If one accepts the preceding reconstruction of Rolland's mysticism, then it would occasion an alteration in extant understandings of the oceanic feeling. The oceanic feeling was not an aesthetic phenomenon, a benign vestige of an early phase of pre-oedipal life, nor was it the basis for withdrawal from reality into an illusory maternal matrix. Rather, if Rolland is taken at face value, it was an existential achievement, a fact that gives it ethical and developmental depth. In other words, we now have a textual basis for the rejection of Freud's interpretation. (Parsons, 1998, p. 522) Parsons concludes that Rolland’s experience sounds less like a survival from primary narcissism and more like the “cosmic narcissism” described by Kohut as the endpoint of development in his psychoanalytic self psychology: The achievement... of a shift of the narcissistic cathexis from the self to a concept of participation in a supraindividual and timeless existence ... [lies] in contrast to the oceanic feeling, ...which is experienced passively (and usually fleetingly).... The genuine shift toward a cosmic narcissism is the enduring, creative result of the steadfast activities of the autonomous ego, and only very few are able to attain it.... I believe that this rare feat rests, not simply on a victory of autonomous reason and supreme objectivity over the claims of narcissism, but on the creation of a higher form of narcissism ... a cosmic narcissism which has transcended the bounds of the individual. (Kohut, as cited in Parsons, 1998, p. 523) Interestingly, Kohut defines his cosmic narcissism in contrast to the oceanic feeling, of which, like most psychoanalytic writers, he accepts Freud’s interpretation. Based on Parsons’s richer description of Rolland’s mysticism, however, it is clear that the oceanic feeling, at least as Rolland experienced it, matches more closely with Kohut’s cosmic narcissism than with the classic psychoanalytic interpretation of the oceanic feeling per
9 se. At this point, of course, Kohut’s use of the term narcissism becomes confusing, with cosmic narcissism being simultaneously a form of narcissism and also the end of narcissism as we know it. For this reason, I personally find Kohut’s terminology less than helpful. If cosmic narcissism is in fact the end of narcissism, then perhaps it ought to be called something else. On this note, Lionel Corbett writes that When Kohut (1977) ...describes "cosmic narcissism," which transcends the boundaries of the individual (Kohut, 1966), he seems to be referring to the phenomenon that Jung describes as the transpersonal or transcendent aspects of the self (Jung, 1968a, p. 182). (Corbett, 1989) Perhaps, in considering Rolland’s experiences, it would be helpful to view them in terms of a developmental model. Roger Walsh writes that “Developmental psychologists currently recognize three broad levels of development: prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal, which are also called preconventional, conventional, and postconventional” (2011, p. 456). The infant, having not yet developed a separate ego, would be at a prepersonal stage of development. A normal adult, in contrast, would experience him or herself as an independent agent, separate from the rest of the world, and typically identified with the thinker, as in Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.” A transpersonal state or stage of development, however, would go beyond this narrow sense of self to an identification with a larger reality, as in the mystical experiences that Rolland described. Walsh defines transpersonal experiences as those “in which the sense of identity or self expands beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind and the world...” (2011, p. 459). From the perspective of contemporary transpersonal theory, then, Freud’s interpretation of Rolland’s oceanic feeling would be a classic example--perhaps the classic example--of the “pre/post
10 fallacy” in which “...transpersonal experiences... were often confused with prepersonal ones and therefore were mistakenly diagnosed as regressive or pathological” (p. 459). From this integral, developmental perspective, the oceanic feeling is a transpersonal experience, in which the sense of self expands to include a larger totality of being. This interpretation fits more closely with Rolland’s description of his experiences, both in his own writings and in his letter to Freud, which emphasized that the oceanic feeling did not in any way impede his rational faculties, and in fact enhanced his emotional and creative capacities beyond conventional levels. Far from “seeking something like the restoration of limitless narcissism” (Freud, 1930/1989, p. 727) the feeling that Rolland experienced was a hard-won end to the narcissism that we all, as human beings, are born with. In Rolland’s view, the mystical traditions, including yoga, were not regressions to narcissism but paths to its extinction, paths beyond the limited sense of self that we develop in our infancy (Parsons, 1998). In that sense, the mystical traditions are ancient paths toward a goal which psychoanalysis only dared to look toward with Kohut and his self psychology in the 1960s and 70s (Wolf, 1988). But other thinkers, like Rolland and Jung, recognized the value of the transpersonal experience early on. While Freud largely dismissed Rolland’s suggestions, Jung could just as well have been thinking of them when he wrote that “the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experience you are released from the curse of pathology” (cited in Walsh, 2011, p. 459). Yet for all his scientific skepticism and aversion to “the black tide of mud of occultism,” (cited in Jung, 1989, p. 150) Freud continued to admire Rolland. Perhaps,
11 when Freud made his famous visit to Athens and gazed out from the Acropolis to the sea beyond, he felt a sense of awe that came close to the oceanic feeling. As Harrison (1979) suggests, such an experience may have reminded Freud of Rolland, to whom Freud dedicated his account of that experience. Though Freud did not describe his experience on the Acropolis in terms of mysticism, I would like to imagine that he must have felt much the same sense of awe at that moment as I have always felt gazing out over the Pacific, and had some intuition of the infinite, unknown depths of soul and world.
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