the challenge of the oceanic feeling: romain rolland’s mystical critique of psychoanalysis and his call for a “new science of the mind” : a talk by ayon maharaj – a report

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Theatre Adda : Park Street Sessions was fortunate to host Ayon Maharaj, a liberal and young monk from the order of Ramakrishna Mission, Belur, West Bengal. He delivered a talk on May 6, 2017 titled ´The Challenge of the Oceanic Feeling: Romain Rolland’s Mystical Critique of Psychoanalysis and His Call for a “New Science of the Mind”´.

This talk was jointly organized by the Bengal Theosophical Federation, Alliance francaise du Bengale & Culture Monks. The idea of the talk was initiated by Culture Monks, as a part of our continuous initiative to foster a spirit & practice of critical dialogue in the society, which brings into fold, people from all aspects of life and who are generally excluded from such discourses which are limited to the participation of the academia and intelligentsia and hence one can say has been largely inegalitarian.

It is also of great interest to note the various institutions of the past which played a very important role in Bengal to foster a spirit of intelligent dialogue, culture formation and reforms have been systematically eroded due to neglect, which in tun mayǘe have caused by the flight on intelligentsia and cultural capital from Calcutta to other parts of the world. When we of course refer to The Bengal Theosophical movementś past and concur with their current disposition, one can clearly say that the vigor of youth and the ability to questioning have been replaced by a certain inertia, which of course needs to be addressed. It was out intention to bring such institution back to the some focus of attention and hope that our various interventions would provoke reactions and lead to resuscitation of these institutions.

´When the scriptures melt away, the chants remain.

When the chants melt away, the mind remains.

When the mind melts away, whatś left?

A void mingles with the Void.¨ – Lad Ded ( as translated by Ranjit Hoskote)

The theme which was basically about Roman Rollandś need for acceptance of his treatise on Oceanic feeling by the scientific community, the rejection of tenor and spirit by Sigmund Freud and his criticism of this rejection,  itself is very pertinent today as it continues to seek answers to the relationship of the physical self  with the metaphysical universe at large through the  state of ¨dissolution of psychological and sensory boundaries of the self¨ and its differences with psychoanalysis, which attempts to explain this feeling as impractical  and analyses it as an infantile regressive state. As Freud would call this pursuit of Oceanic Feeling ´limitless narcissism´ , Rolland would in turn term Freudś position as ŕeductive´. Since the emotional experience in question – Oceanic Feeling´, could be construed as an accepted experience and a necessary or in fact a desired state in the spiritual practices of global east and definitely of the south east Asian region, while the lens of psychoanalysis is purely of Western origin, this conflict then is also of one between the problem of how they are both placed in contemporary thinking. It is obvious that psychoanalysis, much like the western Christian world had or does, looks upon the mysticism of the east as an abnormality, highlighting the dualist state of parent/child, where the western logic of psychoanalysis is the superior parent which is amused by the inferior blabbering of the childlike uncivilized east, which needs to be ´fixed´. It also brings into question the attitude of mystics and rationalists alike to other human experiences and positions which may not adhere to their limited understanding of the human mind and its potentials to experience beyond limits set by either of these school of thoughts.

Of course, this talk was precisely about the differences which arose in course of correspondence between Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud, which Romain Rolland had initiated to share with his friend his thoughts an experiences of the¨Oceanic Feeling¨. While the correspondences clearly laid out the difference between two schools of thoughts, philosophies and approaches, it also belied the somewhat limited understanding which both men from the west, Romain Rolland included, had ,of the spiritual practices & way of life, of the East (particularly India). In fact Romain Rolland had  interpreted all his experiences of  India through the unified lens of ´Oceanic Feeling´, as an universal feeling, which of course would be a mis interpretation of reality, and something which we should be conscious and aware of , as we enter this discourse, for the sake of objectivity.

Oceanic Feeling´, has great significance in the understanding of  the creative process and for the development of aesthetics and ethics. It is as Ayon MJ pointed out a śupra – normal and not a super – abnormal infantile stage and hence we need to understand and cultivate it through rigorous practice, which would mean overstepping  the boundaries or overcoming the scarecrows of ṕyscho analysis, without ignoring its utility in dealing in very limited and specific instances.

The debate between Romain Rolland & Sigmund Freud was also one of the fundamental question of the an transcendental divine, which Roman Rolland strongly believed in and Sigmund Freud who was an atheist did not.

Spirituality has forged a separate identity in this contemporary world, from its fountainhead, which is religious. The growing popularity of the category of practice & faith which is known as SBNR ( Spiritual But Not Religious) movement would suggests that the younger generation are exploring the spiritual underpinnings of religious philosophy to cope with the chaos of the contemporary life, without committing to the order of religious practice which they probably feel is constricting. Hence it is also of interest and debate if a transcendental experience of Oceanic Feeling’, is purely a religious experience or could it be also be a secular one.

– Sudipta Dawn

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Abstract

In a letter written in 1927, the French writer Romain Rolland asked Sigmund Freud to analyze the “oceanic feeling,” a religious feeling of oneness with the entire universe.

According to David Fisher and William Parsons, Rolland was encouraging Freud to provide a non-reductive psychoanalytic explanation of the oceanic feeling. I will argue, however, that Rolland’s intentions in introducing the oceanic feeling to Freud were much more complex, multifaceted, and critical than most scholars have acknowledged. To this end, I will examine Rolland’s views on mysticism and psychoanalysis in his book-length biographies of the Indian saints Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, which he wrote just after he mentioned the oceanic feeling to Freud in 1927. In these biographies, Rolland not only polemicizes against psychoanalytic approaches to mystical experience but also encourages psychoanalysts to correct and deepen their superficial conception of the mind by taking seriously the mystical experiences of both Eastern and Western saints. With this background in place, I will argue that Rolland’s intentions in introducing the oceanic feeling to Freud in his 1927 letter were irreducibly complex. While Rolland’s manifest intention was, indeed, to encourage Freud to analyze the oceanic feeling from a psychoanalytic perspective, Rolland’s latent intention—less evident in his letters to Freud than in his biographies of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda—was to challenge the fundamental assumptions of psychoanalysis from a mystical perspective and to confront Freud with a mystical “science of the mind” that he felt was more rigorous and comprehensive than Freud’s psychoanalytic science.

–  Ayon MJ

The sideshow below if of the presentation developed by Ayon MJ for the talk :

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Report on the Talk

It was truly engrossing talk which lasted for about an hour and wad followed up by an engaging session with the audience. Ayon MJs´ endearing personality and his lucid presentation style, makes a difficult theme & subject very accessible for the audience who are from all walk of life.

The talk took through the basic concepts which defines the two district positions of mysticism, as represented by Romain Rollandś philosophies and beliefs and the other which is rationality of science as represented by Sigmund Freud. The differences were revealed through a series of correspondences between Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud.

Although the criticism of Sigmund Freudś lack of proper understanding  of  ´Oceanic Feeling´ and the limitations of methods of psychoanalysis in understanding a  supra normal phenomenon, was the crux of the talk, where the premises of the psychoanalysis was deemed inadequate by Romain Rolland in explaining the enormity of human mind ; the talk also focused on the problems of Roman Rollandś position in his fanatic pursuit of  ´ oneness with the universe’ as the universal object of ´Oceanic Feeling ‘ thus ignoring that this ´feeling’ could also signify oneness with other objects and hence deeming his position as exclusive and ĺimited´also.

The talk raised question as how the western mind and gaze continue to perceive eastern way of life and identities, which in turn has and does greatly affect our perception of ourselves, as being wither exotic or inadequate in the rule books of the west. Ayon MJ alluded to the representation of the east , its spiritual leaders and its life , in Western writings and media, which continues to form the mindset of the globe towards this identity.

The talk also highlighted the inertia and an inclination towards a dogmatic thinking which has pervaded institution & society in Bengal which refuses to undertake critical discourse and hence stalls the possibilities of progress in thoughts which of course has proven harmful for the institutions and the society at large. Ayon MJ also emphasized the need of rigor and discipline in the current context in understanding the external world and our relationship with it for greater harmony and progress to avoid the trappings of totalitarianism and intolerance forged by ignorance.

Indeed this was a call of a ´new science of mind´, where the agency is upon us to participate in decide on the future course of our society and planet.

-. Sudipta Dawn

A brief summary of Ayon Maharajś past en devour and achievements as a scholar and presenter.

Ayon Maharaj is an assistant professor at Department of Philosophy, Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University, Kolkata.

He has written several books and articles on philosophy. Below are the details.

BOOK

The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency: Revaluating German Aesthetics from Kant to Adorno (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). (Reviewed in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and British Journal for the History of Philosophy)

ARTICLES

“The Challenge of the Oceanic Feeling: Romain Rolland’s Mystical Critique of Psychoanalysis and His Call for a ‘New Science of the Mind,’” South Asian History and Culture (forthcoming).

“‘God Is Infinite, and the Paths to God Are Infinite’: A Reconstruction and Defense of Sri Ramakrishna’s Vijñāna-Based Model of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Religion (forthcoming).

“Sri Ramakrishna’s Philosophy of Vijñāna Vedānta,” International Journal of Hindu Studies (forthcoming).

“Swami Vivekananda’s Vedāntic Critique of Schopenhauer’s Doctrine of the Will,” Philosophy East and West (forthcoming).

“Kant on the Epistemology of Indirect Mystical Experience,” Sophia (forthcoming).

“Asminnasya ca tadyogaṃ śāsti: Swami Vivekananda’s Interpretation of Brahmasūtra 1.1.19 as a Hermeneutic Basis for Samanvayī Vedānta” (invited contribution to a forthcoming volume
from University of Calcutta Press).

“Toward a New Hermeneutics of the Bhagavad Gītā: Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, and the Secret of Vijñāna,” Philosophy East and West 65.4 (October 2015), pp. 1209-1233.

“Śrī Harṣa contra Hegel: Monism, Skeptical Method, and the Limits of Reason,” Philosophy East and West 64.1 (January 2014), pp. 82-108.

“Yogic Mindfulness: Hariharānanda Āraṇya’s Quasi-Buddhistic Interpretation of Sṃrti in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra I.20,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 41 (2013), pp. 57-78.

“Why Poetry Matters: The Transpersonal Force of Lyric Experience in Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos,” Arizona Quarterly 66.4 (Winter 2010), pp. 71-92.

Roy, Ayon. “Hegel contra Schlegel; Kierkegaard contra de Man,” PMLA 124.1 (January 2009), pp. 107-126.

Roy, Ayon. “The Specter of Hegel in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria,” Journal of the History of Ideas 68.2 (April 2007), pp. 279-304.

Roy, Ayon. “Postmodern Convexity and Hegelian Dialectics in Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’” Gingko Tree Review 4.1 (2007), pp. 25-46.

Roy, Ayon. “In seinem Anderen bei sich selbst zu sein: Toward a Recuperation of Hegel’s Metaphysics of Agency,” Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy 11.1 (Fall 2006), pp. 225-255.

Roy, Ayon. “From Deconstruction to Decreation: Wallace Stevens’ Notes toward a Poetics of Nobility,” Wallace Stevens Journal 29.2 (Fall 2005), pp. 249-262.

BOOK REVIEW

Review of Urs App’s Schopenhauer’s Compass, Philosophy East and West (forthcoming).

HONORS AND AWARDS

American Philosophical Association Pacific Division Meeting Travel Grant, 2017
AAS-in-Asia Travel Grant for Kyoto Conference, 2016
Franklin Postdoctoral Research Grant, American Philosophical Society, 2010
Dean’s Normative Time Fellowship, University of California, Berkeley, 2008
Fulbright Scholarship, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 2006
Barbara H. Kurtz Award for outstanding achievement in Ph.D. program, 2006
English Department travel grant for language study in Germany, Summer 2005
Chancellor’s Fellowship for PhD study, University of California, Berkeley, 2003-2006
Award for outstanding achievement in undergraduate major, UC Berkeley, 2002
WISC Scholarship for study at University of Oxford, 2000

CONFERENCE PRESENTATIONS

“Two Spiritual Paradigms for Art: Sri Aurobindo and Theodor Adorno,” The Language of Art Conference, North Bengal University, India, February 2017.

“The Challenge of the Oceanic Feeling: Romain Rolland’s Mystical Critique of Psychoanalysis and His Call for a ‘New Science of the Mind,’” ICCSAE International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Meaning, Art, and Culture, Derozio Memorial College, Kolkata, India, January

“The Challenge of the Oceanic Feeling: Romain Rolland’s Mystical Critique of Psychoanalysis and His Call for a ‘New Science of the Mind,’” Asian Studies Conference in Japan, International
Christian University, Tokyo, Japan, July 2016.

“Toward a Cross-Cultural Theodicy: Sri Ramakrishna’s Multidimensional Response to the Problem of Evil,” AAS-in-Asia Conference at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan,June 2016.

“‘God Is Infinite, and the Paths to God Are Infinite’: A reconstruction and Defense of Sri Ramakrishna’s Vijñāna-Based Model of Religious Pluralism,” International Conference on the
Sociology of Religion in a Pluralistic Society, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India, April 2016.

“Toward a More Robust Religious Pluralism: Bringing Sri Ramakrishna into Dialogue with John Hick,” ICCSAE International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Knowledge, Morality, and
Spirituality, Vedic Village, Kolkata, India, Jan. 2016.

“Buddhist Śūnyavāda and Advaita Vedānta,” Seminar on Buddhism, Monastic Probationer’s Training Center, Belur Math, Howrah, India, July 2013.

“The Methodology and Argument of Śrī Harṣa’s Khaṇdanakhaṇdakhādya,” Navya-Nyāya Workshop, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata, India, June 2012.

Participant in roundtable, “How to Get Published in PMLA,” Modern Language Association Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA, December 2008.

“The Problem of Aesthetic Pleasure in Kant’s ‘Analytic of the Beautiful,’” International Graduate Philosophy Conference, Johns Hopkins University, March 2008.

“Aporien des ästhetischen Wohlgefallens in Kants Kritik der Urteilskraft” (presented in German), Forschungskolloquium, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, February 2007.

“Why Poetry Matters: The Transpersonal Force of Lyric Experience in Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos,” Twentieth-Century Literature Conference, University of Kentucky, February 2005.

“Adorno’s Revenge” (response paper), Panel on New Technologies, Berkeley-Stanford English Conference, May 2004.

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