Sublimation—does it work?
May 10, 2009 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Is the theory of sublimation—the idea of channeling sexual energy into creative or physical output—still considered valid? Is there evidence that it "works"?

I was reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, written fairly recently, as I recall, by a surgeon and science writer (Sherwin Nuland). In it, he states somewhat matter-of-factly the likelihood of Leonardo having channeled his homosexual desires into his art, such that expressions of his libido were nonexistent. This is paraphrasing, but that was the essential message. Now, I'm not an expert in psychology, but I thought such reliance on Freudian terms was odd. But since it was from an actual medical doctor, not a literature professor (which would have been less surprising), I began to wonder if there was something to it.

So, my question: is there evidence that this concept of sublimation is valid? Can a person make better art and be more productive by curtailing sexual activity? And conversely, can a person diminish or eliminate sexual desire by committing himself to his art or profession? I'll take personal anecdotes as well as second-hand ones.
posted by Busoni to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

Anecdote: I'm way more productive when getting laid. YMMV.
posted by rokusan at 11:28 AM on May 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

In general, discussion of sublimation is that it's an unconscious process that happens because of feelings of shame, fear, etc.--not a conscious one to try and subvert something on purpose.

That said, here is the biological reality: in general, the more you have sex, the more the testosterone and other hormones and neurotransmitters are produced that lead to sexual desire. Having less sex, for most people, leads to having less desire for it.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:50 AM on May 10, 2009

There is of course the anecdote of Balzac having claimed to have lost a "masterpiece" to a nocturnal emission (unable to locate one specific source at moment).

To answer your question more directly: Can a person make better art and be more productive by curtailing sexual activity? I think Balzac definitely believed this, and his output was legendary.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 12:00 PM on May 10, 2009

I have never seen reputable studies showing sexual sublimation works - and I wonder how one would conduct such a study and how one would establish controls.

Anecdotally, it seems we have quite a bit of evidence for the contrary - at least for males. Many musicians admitted that they started or joined bands, or learned an instrument (guitar seems a favorite) not out of any particular musical inclination, but rather to impress girls and get laid, and only subsequently did they develop a real interest in music.

Reading through history, some of the same motivation seems to have obtained for other arts.
posted by VikingSword at 12:01 PM on May 10, 2009

There's certainly a belief in many religious traditions that denial of sexual impulses is necessary to develop higher spiritual qualities. This was a big theme in the early part of Gandhi's autobiography - he repeatedly castigates himself for becoming distracted by sexual enjoyment with his wife while they were both young. He felt that becoming celibate was necessary for him to undertake the rest of his life's work. Of course there's a lot more to the complex relationships Gandhi had with his family, but his view on the connection between celibacy and holiness was mainstream for his place and time.
posted by rhiannon at 12:06 PM on May 10, 2009

I saw a documentary (Iswear it must have been on PBS, but I can't find it ATM) on the Shaker community, and there was a theory put forth that their woodworking craftsmanship (and general design legacy) was related to their celibate lifestyle.
posted by jquinby at 12:38 PM on May 10, 2009

...ah, a moment's googling yield the documentary. The Shakers, by Ken Burns.
posted by jquinby at 12:39 PM on May 10, 2009

To answer your question more directly: Can a person make better art and be more productive by curtailing sexual activity? I think Balzac definitely believed this, and his output was legendary.

This, of course, proves nothing.
posted by argybarg at 1:00 PM on May 10, 2009

I thought the whole purpose of art and music was to get laid.

All kidding aside, if anything, just staying celibate does nothing for my creativity. Its wanting and seeking someone and not getting what you want that is the real generator of creativity for me.

There's no one answer to this.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:17 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

It could be a simple matter of how you choose to spend your time.
posted by aquafortis at 1:57 PM on May 10, 2009

Like most of Freud's ideas, it was never empirically tested and has fallen out of favor because there's really not much support for it. I believe there may be a few studies on athletes refraining from sex before big games or fights (the idea here was more you are angrier if you can't get laid and take it out on the other team/ guy), but I can't recall what the outcomes were.

Both Freudians and evolutionary psychologists believe that most behavior is in some part motivated by sexual desire (though ev psych would express it as reproductive desire and would also include stuff aimed at survival)-- and some theorize that art and music developed like the peacock's tail, as a way to impress girls.

But the idea that you are better at your art if you don't have sex, it's one of those things that is metaphorically linked to a steam engine model of emotions and drives that need to be channeled and stay constant, so they have to go somewhere.

Real brains don't work like that-- for example, "anger management" stuff that relies on hitting things actually increases rage, rather than "blowing off steam." It would not make any sense reproductively if sexual desire were a constant thing that needed an outlet: and indeed, people's desire waxes and wanes. For example, when you've just had a kid, you're typically not much in the mood. You didn't "sublimate" it into taking care of the kid: your hormone levels are different, not to mention some other issues around childbirth and babies.
posted by Maias at 3:45 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is one of the oldest memes in the book, isn't it? A quick search through my archives finds lots of examples of the notion:
    The reabsorption of semen by the blood is the strongest nourishment and, perhaps more than any other factor, it prompts the stimulus of power, the unrest of all forces toward the overcoming of resistances, the thirst for contradiction and resistance. The feeling of power has so far mounted highest in abstinent priests and hermits (for example, among the Brahmins). --Nietzsche (from The Portable Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann, ed.)
    Degas "does not like women, for he knows that if he loved them and fucked them he…would become insipid as a painter. He looks on while the human animals, stronger than himself, get excited and fuck…Painting and fucking are not compatible; it weakens the brain…If we want to be really potent males in our work, we must sometimes resign ourselves not to fuck much. --Vincent Van Gogh, quoted in The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People by Irving Wallace, et al. [Incidentally, this book also mentions Balzac as being one of the premier horn-dogs of his age, often having relations with three different women in the same day, then writing all night. Not celibate.]
    He could very easily take care of the Hunk of Burning Love problem now that he has privacy, but astonishes himself by electing not to. This may be perverse; he's not sure. The last month and a half of total celibacy, relieved only by nocturnal emissions at roughly two-week intervals, has definitely got him in a mental space he has never been to before, or come near, or even heard about. When he was in jail he had to develop a fierce mental discipline in order not to be distracted by thoughts of sex. He got alarmingly good at it after awhile. It's a highly unnatural approach approach to the mind/body problem, pretty much the antithesis of every sixties and seventies-tinged philosophy that he ever imbibed from his Baby Boomer elders. It is the kind of thing he associated with scary hardasses: Spartans, Victorians, and mid-twentieth-century American military heroes. It has turned Randy into something of a hardass in his approach to hacking, and meanwhile, he suspects, it has got him into a much more intense and passionate head space than he's ever known when it comes to matters of the heart. He won't really know that until he comes face to face with Amy, which looks like it's going to be a while, since he's just been kicked out of the country where she lives and works. Just as an experiment, he decides he's going to keep his hands off of himself for now. If it makes him a little tense and volatile compared to his pathologically mellow West Coast self, then so be it. One nice thing about being in Asia is that tense, volatile people blend right in. It's not like anyone ever died from being horny. --Neal Stephenson, from Cryptonomicon
So there you go: celibacy worked for Nietzche, Van Gogh and Degas (but two of them went bat-shit insane); Balzac sneers at your ideas of celibacy while having another go at one of his mistresses. Randy, our fictional character from Cryptonomicon, abstains to the point of being mad with desire, which enables him to get the girl of his dreams. I guess if it works for you, it works; if it doesn't, you can tell yourself you're keeping your prostate in good shape through regular flushings...

I believe there may be a few studies on athletes refraining from sex before big games or fights (the idea here was more you are angrier if you can't get laid and take it out on the other team/ guy), but I can't recall what the outcomes were.

I saw this hypothesis tested on Mythbusters or one of those type shows, and the athlete actually performed measurably better after sex.
posted by Bron at 7:04 PM on May 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

In yoga theory the sublimation doesn't magically happen but is achieved by the headstand asana (the energy flows from the root of spinal cord down to the crown of the head, or if you like kundalini yoga perspective better, the kundalini snake unwraps its 3 1/2 coils downward, again to the crown of the head). A mere 30 minute daily headstand should be enough to confirm or disconfirm this theory! Yay!
posted by rainy at 7:36 PM on May 10, 2009

As a reasonably accomplished writer, artist and musician (published, sold / freelanced, and regularly performing), I would say that this theory is, you should excuse the expression, a load of codswallop. That said, it probably works differently for different people. Personally, if I am lacking I am unhappy, and if I am unhappy it affects my work. Yes, I can still work, but I don't enjoy it as much, and I am not as relaxed a creator. When I am relaxed I am more productive and my output is of a higher quality.

It was marriage that was killing my creativity... but that is another question entirely.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:43 AM on May 11, 2009

I dunno, I have more time to make stuff when I am not having a boyfriend clamoring for um, attention, but I don't necessarily think that one potential energy converts into another like that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:14 PM on May 11, 2009

Sublimation is a proven fact. Lots of things sublime, even things you have interacted with. Caffiene will sublime at room pressure, and carbon dioxide sublimes as well. Sublimation is just turning from a solid directly into a gas.

Oh wait you mean some old brain theory about being celibate and protecting our vital fluids. No thats just silly.
posted by koolkat at 1:56 AM on May 13, 2009

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