Norman O. Brown

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.

15 Responses to “Norman O. Brown”

  1. I have been influenced by Brown more than I care to admit (and I missed the Boomer
    generation by a hair or two!). Given his impact, one can easily end up, in some way, reading, say, Walt Whitman by way of Brown’s imagination, especially the notion of the ‘resurrection of the body.’ I like your last phrase “practices of metamorphosis”, which rings true. I would like to read more of your blogs, but have no time just now. Will later. Cheers. p.s. Great quote! Who is Bootsy Collins?

  2. Mr. Mojo Risin' says:

    Excellent and forthwright blog. I’ve not completed reading the text of __Life Against Death__, but NOB’s work has influenced me, particularly the sections on Art and Eros and play, pleasure-principle, and reality-principle.

    You’re right: There’s no practical use for Brown’s utopian theory, but at least there’s a voice championing an alternative life remedy for the psychological ills of mankind.

  3. Go to my website and take a look at the provisional version of vol. II of my book Beyond Being, Beyond Mind, Beyond History, or if you like to all 3 volumes, and if you read Spanish to the working files for the next edition of my Individuo, sociedad, ecosistema.

  4. Michael Owsowitz says:

    With regard to applications, Brown’s work, expecially his suggestion that cities and cultures are derivatives of Freud’s death drive, which paradoxically kills lived life in an attempt to symbolically deny death – has been seminal in an exciting ongoing project to investigate – and perhaps do something about – the human propensity for intercultural violence. Working backward through Ernest Becker (“Denial of Death”), whose writings are heavily indebted to Brown, a group of psychologists led by Sheldon Solomon (Skidmore) have conducted a large program of empirical invesitgation demonstrating the power of subliminal “mortality salience” (death awareness) to inspire xenohobic attitudes and hostile behavior toward those perceived as “other”. Their work suggests at least one “practice of metamorphosis” which may reduce human violence: emphasize explicit values of tolerance. This approach may be decidedly more Apollonian than Brown would have it, but it does honor his insistence on acknowledging the centrality of death in human affairs. The Becker project has found that those who espouse tolerance as a central value are less prone to respond to death anxiety with “demonize other” responses. While “de-tribalizing” humanity may not be explicit in NOB’s “Life Against Death” project , it is certainly implicit in his vigorous defense of Luther’s “big-boat” vision of a humanity universally corrupted by a world ruled by the Devil, rather than divided into the saved and unsaved.

  5. Bill Veith says:

    I discovered Brown’s LAD in 1966. I, too, have struggled with implementing his insights, by attempting to take up the challenge that he set before Christian theology, especially Protestant Theology, esp, Luther and Boehme, but specifcally to the then vibrant stars Paul tillich and K. Barth. Brown appreciated the Christian Tradition, as an instrument for keeping alive the mystical hope of the Life Instinct at a time in history when that hope could only be mystical. Brown pleaded with such theologians, as potential friends of the Life Instinct, to organize the precious insights of the Christian faith into something like psychoanalytic therapy, believing that only then could the precious insights of the Christian faith be helpful or even meaningful. Brown grieved the sublimating compromises of the main stream Christianities with Platonism and Neo-Platonism, classically in the medieval Roman Catholic synthesis, the degeneration of Luther’s and Boehme’s insights, into the modern ideologies of various cultural Protestantisms, from Reformed and Lutheran Orthodoxy, modern Liberalism to modern Fundamentalism. Brown challenged an investigation of the Psychoanalytic Meaning of Christianity. I have tried to pursue the psychoanalytic insights in the teachings and life of Jesus, calling for “a change of mind and heart,” and to search for the earliest and later attempts to develop such a psychology of change in congruence with the Life Instinct within Christianity, seeking a way around its compromises, its sublimations.

  6. david moran says:

    What an understanding, nuanced, and thorough reading of LAD, and how fine to find it online! I studied intellectual history at the U of R 65-67, while Brown was there, and it was an immensely exciting experience, and not in just some spacy trippy ’60s way. Serious, rigorous, and intense, with Hayden White, Loren Baritz, R.J. Kaufmann, Sherman Hawkins (Shakespeare), Husain Haddawy, and many others. Brown was naturally a leading thinker in that crowd, if not exactly primus inter pares.

  7. […] later in grad school studying English literature, I read the Freudian lit critic Norman O. Brown, who seized on Freud’s memorable description of an infant’s world – “polymorphous […]

  8. David Bart says:

    Well done. I have been deeply influenced and inspired by Brown. Thanks for this fine assessment.

  9. Mike Abu says:

    Read Closing Time, it’s a great book

  10. Claudio Perez-Leon says:

    Brown is worth reading repeatedly. Exploring the references and tracing his steps is a fascinating journey. The practices of Metamorphosis are necessary, poetry is a state of mind: Hoc Est Corpus Meum.

  11. Peter Gast says:

    N. O. Brown was the giant of the 20th century who like a great vintage wine is only now coming into his own. He has only improved over the years.

  12. Corrected and amended:
    The first page of Life Against Death was one of those moments where new (to me) ideas lit up new territory and the beginning of a new understanding, literally as in “Behold I make all things new.”
    Freud discovered there is meaning in ‘jokes, slips of the tongue, mistakes, forgetting, and in dreams’? And Martin Luther was ‘on the privy in the tower’ when he received the revelations that formed the Protestant church? (Watch the film, Martin Luther starring Stacy Keach, Luther was plagued with bowl obstructions (!!!))
    And the Gulliver’s Travels book that I’d read when I was a kid had another layer of meaning, its political satire, a fact told as a joke? (Watch the HBO version of Gullivers’ Travels and notice how Gulliver’s attempts to explain his experiences are ‘psychosis’ to everyone else.
    If life is like a movie script on the individual level, we should know that and be prepared to cope with what seems to be madness. The whole world is that now, there’s a way out, learn more about the mind, history, especially Freud, Jung and think for yourself. Thought is the common denominator all of ‘us’.

  13. Jeff says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog regarding Norman O. Brown. I read Closing Time and Life Against Death in a course called Modern Mind taught by Jay Cantor back in 1981 at Tufts. I was 21 at the time and way to young to absorb most of the material. Suddenly I felt the need to refresh my memory about him, which led to you. I normally don’t post on these things but it was great to see that you continue to get replies to something you wrote 8 years ago.


  14. Sam says:

    It’s such a pleasure reading the years that all the comments along with the blog are written. That’s the best prove of how Brown’s work is timeless. I just got to know him recently by a suggestion from Boston psychoanalysis graduate school and all of a sudden after years of trying to understand the psychoanalytic text, Lacan and etc, Brown made everything clear. His lectures on Islam and Henry Corbin is also mind blowing, his extraordinary fresh way of looking at the intentions of Islam, remembers me how the last chapter on anality must have been against the norms and right now reviewing his point of view on Islam in my opinion can make a lot of sense in the situation of heated relationship between east and west. Can’t wait to read the Love’s Body!

  15. […] poems of people and places and events was U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-06 (read Delights And Shadows; Norman O. Brown, philosopher and author of probing meditations on the soul, theology, politics and liberation (read […]

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