We might let the sketch comedy show Portlandia present an example of the problem of the oceanic feeling.
In yoga class, Sandra (Carrie Brownstein) engages Vipassana breathing meditation while seated across from and in the gaze of an attractive and receptive classmate (Fred Armisen). Her internal monologue gives way to a fantasy montage (Wow he has really nice eyes. I bet he rides a motorcycle) Hair in the wind, cafe breakfasts, firelit kisses, she concentrates on making her romantic vision a reality as she returns her classmate's soulful, knowing gaze. The meditation ends as the teacher gently calls their awareness back to the room. Sandra’s love object emerges and speaks, only to complain in a thoroughly annoying way about scheduling and payment, interpreting Sandra’s affect as confirmation of his cause. Apparently, he also felt the connection.
The joke of the scene is the moment the loved object opens his mouth and collapses the symmetry. Fred’s crass choice of objects demonstrates the failure of the oceanic feeling to predict the content of another’s interior experience, even as it helps to produce and transform it. And what is more he brings into relief the secondary dynamics of narcissism, what usually goes by the name vanity or selfishess while Sandra's variety of narcissism goes by the name of primary or first.
Sandra is undoubtedly missing the point of the meditation exercise by confusing an objectlessness spiritual practice with the object desires of a romantic encounter. Her mistake is an all too familiar one in the context of US commodification of (in particular) eastern spiritual practices and the elevation of romantic love to various dimensions of ultimacy; both mistakes are made possible by US cultural expectations of the oceanic feeling.
Sandra’s plight demonstrates what philosophers of religion might describe as an epistemological ambivalence regarding mystical experience, that while it may truly access metaphysical dimensions, it remains a poor predictor of other people's inner and interactive worlds.
In the first chapter of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud answers Romain Rolland's request to address the oceanic feeling as a religious state that sustains and lifts like a sheet of water flushing under the boat, a source of vital renewal that has never failed him. This is not the dogma or tradition of religion but a free vital upsurge. In other words, Rolland is asking after the eros Freud promises but never seems to deliver.
Freud answers his friend fondly but with a sobering reminder that feelings don't always translate into relationships among peers. “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive manifestations of their aggressiveness.” The gulf that separates them is more than the presence or absence of a religious feeling. It is the target on the back of those designated to receive as expulsion the social bond of the dominant group.
The Christian mandate to love has not historically extended to Jews. The constitutive Jewishness of Christian origins is enough to form persecutory envy and murderous anti-Jewishness into the heart of Christian identity. Rolland's world drew Freud in, a steady flowing substrate of good enough feeling. But a good feeling is not enough for a relationship. Relationships require bravery about the breaches of the past and humility about the destiny of a gravitational center.
Infants suspended within and emerging from relative merger do not encounter an ethical mandate except by failing and learning to predict the limits and needs of their caregivers. Triumphal or naïvely boundless Christian love does not hesitate to submerge those others who form its substrate, the work of the sustainers received as effortlessness by the sustained. And salvation has never been enough to stop the saved from consuming the abject twins of their primal history.
Next Page Chapter 2. I Feel Enough For Both of Us
The Matter of Mind
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