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87 . U N U S M U N D U S After Freud published The Future of an Illusion in 1927, his short, polemical tract which treats of the psychological origins of religion, the renowned French dramatist and novelist Romain Rolland wrote to him with a response. In the letter he praised the book but also expressed his dissatisfaction at the absence from the discussion of what he considers to be the true source of the religious experience. This, as Freud recounts in Civilization and its Discontents , “consists in a peculiar feeling, which he [Rolland] himself is never without , which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—­ as it were, ‘oceanic.’”1 According to Rolland this oceanic feeling is the source of all religiosity. It is the sense that there is a resource within us that escapes the finite, embodied limits of subjectivity. This experience is exploited in various ways by the different religions, whether it be the Kingdom of God in Christianity or the sense of oneness with the universe expounded by new age spiritual­ ism, and so on. Freud, the great demystifier, traces the origin of this affect to the all-­ encompassing ego of the newborn infant who as yet does not distinguish internal from external, only gradually learning to do so in the face of a lack. For while some urges may be satisfied at any time and some sources of excitation can be felt at any moment, others—­ “among them what he desires most of all, his mother’s breast”2 —­ escape him and are not under his immediate control. Desires such as these can only be brought to satisfaction by crying and screaming for attention. It is through this experience that the child first “[sets] over against the ego an ‘object,’ in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to reappear by a special action.”3 The “object,” discovered as not being a part of the child’s own ego, thus makes its 3 88 U nu s M un d u s . first appearance in the upsurge of desire and the experience of a lack: a need, whose satisfaction is not in the child’s power. Crying is the initial and most basic technique of reaching out into the external world to bring about this satisfaction that cannot be regulated internally. So while “originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself,” leaving us with 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.”4 The oceanic is thus the spectral persistence of this lost unity, imbuing those who succumb to it with the sense that what they now perceive to be their egoic self is merely the remainder of something more expansive, to which most religious doctrines promise a return after we die. Auto-­ Satisfaction, or How to Bypass Reality This narrative of the subject’s individuation through its decisive severance from the external world is fundamental to Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud famously proposes as a useful fiction the hypothesis that our highly advanced psychical apparatus developed out of the primitive need to minimize excitation (this is the “principle of constancy” or the “Nirvana principle”)5 and that the earliest stage of this apparatus had as its only function to “[keep] itself so far as possible free from stimuli; consequently its first structure followed the plan of a reflex apparatus, so that any sensory excitation impinging upon it could be promptly discharged along a motor path.”6 Subsequently this primitive organism finds that the exigencies of life disturb and upset the success of this self-­ contained system, for needs such as hunger cause an excitation that cannot be soothed via purely internal means. The system can only be rebalanced if an “experience of satisfaction”7 is felt, which suspends the disturbance . The memory trace left by this experience of satisfaction will then indelibly be associated with future occurrences of the same imbalance and the organism will seek to reenact the conditions that led to this feeling of fulfillment . In other words, as soon as the need arises again the organism tries to satisfy it by means that it has previously found successful. As Freud writes, An impulse of this kind is what we call a wish; the reappearance...


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