Norman O. Brown (1913-2002) was a thinker quite famous in the 1960s, but who seems to be little spoken of today. The very thing that made him popular in his time — his optimistically apocalyptic view of a liberating, Dionysian revolution in Western culture — means that now he is thoroughly out of fashion; indeed, the changes of the last forty years or so have made his sort of approach and writing almost entirely unthinkable. But it is precisely because he is unthinkable and untimely, that Brown is worth another look today.
Brown’s first major book, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959), offers a close reading of Freud and psychoanalysis as the vehicle for a radically revisionary look at the human condition. In the 1950s, Freudianism was at the height of its prestige and influence in the United States; but the “Freud” people read (by “people,” I mean the public at large, and the intellectuals, as well as the psychoanalytic community itself) was a very conservative and normative one, the upholder of patriarchy and heterosexuality, the advocate of the necessity of repression, the therapist of strengthening the ego, in order to hold “monsters from the id” at bay.
But Brown reads Freud entirely differently, and from the hindsight of today, much more richly and insightfully. For Brown, Freud is the discoverer of the richness and plenitude of the unconscious mind, and the critic of just how narrow and restricted our conscious, “civilized” experience is. (Brown makes almost the same sharp criticisms of “ego psychology” that Jacques Lacan – unbeknownst to him — was making in France at the same time; though Brown could not be more different from Lacan in most ways, the two of them share a rejection of normative and normalizing approaches to psychoanalysis, and a commitment to taking seriously the speculative and philosophical dimensions of Freud’s texts). Brown emphasizes the role of desire, as against cognition, in how we relate to others and find our place in the world; he insists on the centrality of the body, and the need to understand Freudian mechanisms like repression and sublimation, and introjection and projection, in corporeal terms; he takes seriously such uncomfortable Freudian notions as the castration complex, anality, and the death instinct.
Brown is revising Freud, and using him to change the world, not just reverentially interpreting him; but he makes clear where he is following Freud, and where he is criticizing him, or extrapolating from him, or going beyond him. Basically, Brown draws radical conclusions from Freud’s admonition that the difference between neurosis and mental “health” is at best a matter of degree, and that everything we see in the minds of neurotics is present universally, in everybody’s psyche. Freud is very close to saying we are all neurotic; and Brown insists on this conclusion. Pushing further with something that Freud only said tentatively, Brown extrapolates these results from the individual to society in general: we can psychoanalyze cultures just as we can individual people, and trace social history just as psychoanalysis traces individual histories. Doing this, Brown says, we are led to the conclusion that society itself is neurotic; that human history in general is the history of a mass neurosis; and that psychoanalysis will never “cure” individuals unless it can radically change the society whose neurotic structure mirrors the individual’s own.
For some Freudians, changing society would mean a bit more openness about sexuality, and more liberal toilet training practices for small children — both of which have in fact happened in the time between the 1950s and today. But Brown scorns such reforms as petty, and says they don’t get at the main issue. Brown sees the denial of the body, the reign of repression, and deformations of desire as major structuring principles for all of Western culture, perhaps for all of human culture. The problem goes back to the basic psychological development and organization that for Freud take place in early childhood: the displacement of the “pleasure principle” by the “reality principle,” and the genital organization of the psyche. 20th century sex radicals like D H Lawrence and Wilhelm Reich in fact left sexual repression intact, Brown says, because they maintained the primacy of the orgasm and of genital sexuality. Brown calls instead for a return to polymorphous perversity, the state in which the entire body is eroticized, rather than there being a specific, specialized sexual function.
More generally, Brown mounts a remarkable attack upon the very notion of sublimation, which for Freud and orthodox Freudians was the goal of psychoanalysis and the one potential way out from neurotic suffering. Freud defines sublimation as the turning of sexual and aggressive impulses toward “higher” and more socially useful goals (I redirect my compulsions, and take control of them to become an artist or a politician instead of a neurotic); but it’s notorious that Freud has a very difficult time explaining what sublimation really is, and just how it works. Brown seizes upon this difficulty to argue that sublimation is largely a bogus category, and that it is not a substitute for repression but a continuation of it by different means. The very idea of sublimation — moving from something “lower” to something “higher” — involves stunting the potentialities of the body, and setting up a hierarchy between mind and body, or even a total Cartesian separation of mind from body. For Brown, a radical desublimation is the only way to go: a return to the wisdom of the polymorphously perverse body, a rejection of goal-oriented culture in favor of living in the moment; an acceptance of death as part of life, instead of our dread of death which ironically turns life itself into a living death.
My summary of Brown’s argument doesn’t do justice to its richness of detail and depth of conception; not to mention the powerful insights that crop up along the way, particularly with regard to Freud’s notion of anality, which Brown discusses in great detail in relation to Jonathan Swift, Martin Luther, and the “Protestant ethic” at the base of capitalism.Life Against Death is both broad and deep, and it is astonishingly original. It argues passionately for utopian, apocalyptic, and eschatological speculation, as our only hope for “solving problems that seem at the moment insoluble.” Brown doesn’t have the sardonic sense of the hopelessness of the human situation that his contemporary William Burroughs does; but even to my cynical eyes, Brown does something almost as valuable: he makes a radical alternative to The Way Things Are thinkable, entirely tough-mindedly, and without turning to the sappy, saccharine, and zombiefied visions of all too many utopians, New Agers, and champions of Human Potential.
I have less to say about Brown’s followup volume, Love’s Body (1966), because it strikes me as a much less powerful and interesting book. Brown here draws much more on ethnography and myth, in addition to psychoanalysis, and he strives for a fusion of the pagan/Dionysian with a radical Christian mysticism. (This latter is noteworthy, because it calls upon potentialities in Christianity that are far different either from the “liberal theology” of Brown’s day or from the heavy fundamentalism that is the main face of Christianity in America today. Brown’s emphasis on the joyousness of the Resurrection, on the “resurrection of the body,” is diametrically opposed to the sadomasochistic body hysteria/disgust of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ). Brown also moves from the formidably learned and argumentative discourse of Life Against Death to a more poetic, more willfully fragmentary style of writing. Love’s Body is short on any concrete discussion of how we might get from here to there, from civilized repression to redemption in the body of Dionysus/Christ, but it’s ferociously visionary in a way that stands as a reproach to more timid social, cultural, and religious theorists.
Brown published two subsequent books: Closing Time (1973), which I haven’t read, but which is apparently an arrangement of citations/fragments from Vico’s New Science and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; and a much later collection of essays, Apocalypse And/Or Metamorphosis (1992), where among other things he takes stock of the relations between his own thought and that of some of the European poststructuralists (Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Negri) whose work came later (or, in the case of Bataille, of whom he was simply unaware when he wrote Life Against Death and Love’s Body). It’s an interesting comparison; while Brown’s mysticism is in some ways very American (it certainly goes back to Emerson, among other sources), there are deep affinities there as well (an insistence on the libidinal nature of economics and politics, an interest in Spinoza, a critique of the metaphysics/negativity of Desire and its replacement with a more affirmative emphasis on multiple pleasures/potentialities of bodies).
All in all, I find Norman O. Brown an inspiring writer: inspiring because of the joyous activity and originality of his own thought, which can only encourage us, his readers, to be similarly daring and adventurous in thinking outside the prisonhouse of our reigning ideologies. However, in more specific terms I am not sure how useful he is; I mean by this that I don’t really see how his particular theories and insights can be “put to work” today (well, at least, not by me). Such is always the problem with utopian thought, or with thought this sweeping, foundational, and broad: when you’ve diagnosed the neurosis at the root of all of human history, you are unlikely to have particular suggestions for dealing with the particular hell we are living in today, the hell of unfettered global capitalism, and unfettered religious fundamentalism. But I shouldn’t be churlish. Brown understands, and teaches us, that critique by itself is sterile, and will do nothing unless accompanied by imagination, and practices of metamorphosis.