Norman O. Brown, 1913–2002Norman O. Brown was born in New Mexico in 1913 and educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at the University of Wisconsin. His tutor at Oxford was Isaiah Berlin. A product of the 1930s, Brown was active in left-wing politics – for example, in the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign – and his work belongs within the history of Marxist, as well as psychoanalytic, thought. During World War II, he worked in the Ofﬁce of Strategic Services, where his supervisor was Carl Schorske and his colleagues included Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann. Marcuse urged Brown to read Freud, leading, in 1959, to Brownʼs most memorable work, Life Against Death. Brown taught Classics at Wesleyan University and was a member of the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Although Life Against Death made him an icon of the New Left, he successfully eschewed publicity, insisting to the end on his primary identity as teacher.
There is still no better introduction to Life Against Death than the one that Brown wrote in 1959. The book was inspired, he explained, by a felt ʻneed to reappraise the nature and destiny of manʼ. The ʻdeep study of Freudʼ was the natural means for this undertaking. His motives, Brown continued, were political in the most profound sense of the term: ʻInheriting from the Protestant tradition a conscience which insisted that intellectual work should be directed toward the relief of manʼs estate, I, like many of my generation, lived through the superannuation of the political categories which informed liberal thought and action in the 1930s.ʼ ʻThose of us who are temperamentally incapable of embracing the politics of sin, cynicism and despairʼ, he added, were ʻcompelled to re-examine the classic assumptions about the nature of politics and about the political character of human nature.ʼ
How did it come about, at the dawn of the 1960s, that Freud appeared as the successor to a ʻsuperannuatedʼ, but not yet surpassed, Marxist project? Life Against Death addressed this question. Until the 1960s, as Marx had well understood, the overwhelming fact of human life had been the struggle for material existence. The ʻafﬂuenceʼ, ʻcybernationʼ, and ʻconquest of spaceʼ that were becoming apparent signalled that this struggle need no longer dominate. As John Maynard Keynes prophesied, even a glimpse at ʻsolving the economic problemʼ would provoke a society-wide ʻnervous breakdownʼ or creative illness in which the ends of society would come in for re-examination.
Marxism lacked the means for this re-examination but psychoanalysis did not. However,
Freud in the 1950s was understood to be a conservative refuter of liberal and Marxist illusions of progress and not as their successor. As Norman Podhoretz – then a student who, along with Jason Epstein, discovered and promoted the book – noted, Brown disdained the ʻcheap relativismʼ of Freudʼs early critics such as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm and understood that ʻthe only way around a giant like Freud was through himʼ.
Brownʼs reading of Freud in Life Against Death had two main theses. First, Brown offered a riddle: ʻHow can there be an animal that represses itself?ʼ Freudʼs texts offered a solution. The determining element in human experience, in Brownʼs reading, was the fear of separation, which later takes the form of the fear of death. What we call individuation is a defensive reaction to this primal fear and is ʻbased on hostile trends directed against the motherʼ. Driven by anxiety, the ego is caught up in ʻa causa sui project of self-creationʼ; it is burdened with an ʻunreal independenceʼ. The sexual history of the ego is the evidence of this unreality. Desexualization (the transformation of object-libido into narcissistic libido) is the primary method by which the ego is built up.
While Brownʼs emphasis on the infantʼs psychical vulnerability was true to Freud, his one-sided denigration of the ego was not. According to Brown, what psychoanalysis considered the goals of development – ʻpersonal autonomy, genital sexuality, sublimationʼ – were all forms of repression. Above all Brown criticized psychoanalysis for endorsing dualism: the separation of the soul (or psyche) from the body. The true aim of psychoanalysis, he argued, should be to reunite the two. This can be achieved by returning men and women to the ʻpolymorphous perversityʼ of early infancy, a state that corresponds to transcendence of the self found in art and play and known to the great Christian mystics, such as William Blake and Jakob Boehme. The key was to give up the egoʼs strivings for self-preservation; genital organization, Brown wrote, ʻis a formation of the ego not yet strong enough to dieʼ. Brown called repression the ʻuniversal neurosis of mankindʼ, a neurosis that every individual suffered.
History, or the collective individual, he continued, went through an analogous process of trauma, repression and the return of the repressed. History, then, had the structure of a neurosis. In particular, Brown saw the birth of capitalism as the nucleus of the neurosis, a critical period, somewhat akin to the stage of the Oedipus complex in the evolution of the individual. Just as, in Freudʼs original formulation, the infant moved from anality to genitality, so, Brown believed, in the transition from medieval to modern capitalist society, anality had been repressed, transformed and reborn as property. Capitalism at root, Brown argued, was socially organized anality: beneath the pseudo-individuated genitality of early modern society, its driving force was literally the love of shit.
The Protestants, he held, had been the ﬁrst to notice this. Luther, in particular, regularly called attention to the Satanic character of commerce, by which Brown meant both its daemonic, driven character and its excremental overtones of possession, miserliness and control. The papacyʼs ultimate sin, according to Luther, was its accommodation to the world, meaning to commerce or the Devil. Once again, as for the individual, Brown viewed death as the portal to life.
Max Weber, he argued, in linking Protestantism to capitalism, emphasized the calling but left out the cruciﬁxion. According to Brown, ʻthe Protestant surrenders himself to his calling as Christ surrendered himself to the crossʼ, meaning that a free, unrepressed merging with this world was the path to resurrection and to the transcendence of the soul/body divide. Life Against Death will always be associated with Herbert Marcuseʼs Eros and Civilization, which appeared four years earlier and which inevitably inﬂuenced Brown.
Whereas Brown articulated his impossibly utopian vision of an unrepressed humanity in prophetic tones, Marcuse distinguished surplus repression – the repression imposed by alienated labour and class society – from necessary repression, the repression that was inevitably involved in separation from the mother, the struggle with the instincts, and death. Both books reﬂected the historic possibilities of automation, but Marcuseʼs added a note of realism missing in Brownʼs. Furthermore, in the ecumenical 1960s, the Christian substructure of Brownʼs thought was barely noticed, although it became even more prominent in his 1965 Loveʼs Body. By contrast Eros and Civilization was unremittingly secular. In one sense, however, Brownʼs book advanced beyond Marcuseʼs. Whereas Marcuse still suggested that most psychic suffering originated in social demands imposed on the individual from the outside, Brown was closer to Freud in grasping the ʻmind-forgʼd manaclesʼ rooted in the painful facts of dependence and separation.
Although published in the 1950s, Life Against Death found its main audience among the polycentric, globally dispersed, revolution-oriented student and youth groups known collectively as the New Left. Just as such ʻextremistʼ sects of the Reformation as the Anabaptists, Diggers and Holy Rollers sought to experience salvation on earth, so the New Left rejected Freudʼs insistence that repression was inevitable. In doing so, it served as a kind of shock troop, limning the horizon of a new society. Life Against Death spoke to its key preoccupations: the belief that the socio-political world was intrinsically mad, the rejection of the nuclear family, the desire to transcend distinctions and boundaries, to bring everything and everyone together, the rejection of sublimation and the achievement ethic in favour of authenticity, expressive freedom and play. Like Eros and Civilization it rested its claims on the egoʼs original, ʻinseparable connection with the external worldʼ. Giving voice to the communal ethos of the time, it provided an underpinning to the New Leftʼs critique of instrumental reason, its desire for a new connectedness with nature, and its attempt to liberate sexuality from its genital, heterosexual limits; indeed, to eroticize the entire body and the world.
What, ﬁnally, can we say about a work whose tone and vision seem almost inﬁnitely alien to our own ʻpost-utopianʼ times? Brownʼs perception of the liberating potential of the modern economy was not wrong, but it required cultural and political transformations that necessarily occurred only in partial and limited ways. If Brown missed the fact that the fantastic power of the modern economy can be and has been harnessed for life, he illuminated its dark and daemonic underside in ways that we have still not fathomed. It is also worth remembering that the dreams that arise in great periods of social upheaval do not disappear for ever. Rather, they go underground, as the 1960s went underground and were reborn in the womenʼs movement, in the upheavals of 1989, and in the anti-globalization struggles of today. Memorializing Brownʼs death is one way to encourage what he believed in above all: rebirth.
Closing timeTo gain entry into Norman O. Brownʼs seminar on Finnegans Wake, undergraduates were handed a randomly chosen passage from the novel and asked to free associate to it – for two hours. Free associate? Perhaps I was the only one who understood the assignment that way, and turned in a spiralling rhizome of questions and sentence fragments rather than a coherent essay. Later in the term, we students suspected that knowledge of a foreign language (or, better, two) meant an automatic place in the class.
Teaching at a state university in northern California in the early 1970s, and a countercultural one at that, Brown could not expect students to arrive with or to pursue the elaborate classical training he had received. Many of us had not yet read Joyceʼs Ulysses, let alone Brownʼs Loveʼs Body (whose title, we learned later, had come to Brown in a dream) or Closing Time, his study of the Wake. Some students had shown up only because of a story circulating around campus about the last time Brown had taught the Wake – that he had been carried in inside a cofﬁn and had sat up suddenly, reciting paragraphs from memory. Our more Dionysian expectations ran up against Brownʼs pedagogical demands – the importance of reading foreign languages in the original, of studying the most difﬁcult texts, of being familiar with modern poets, of having an etymological dictionary always ready to hand.
The great classicist and philologue was no antiquarian. Etymologies were valued because, as in ʻThe Antithetical Sense of Primal Wordsʼ (the text of choice in the seminar), they were the road to the unconscious. In that class I learned that the only response to poetry was more poetry. The Wake class was also my ﬁrst exposure to theory, to the idea that thought, like numbers, could be squared, so to speak – taken to a higher level; and that this was what made thinking worthwhile. But only with the understanding that you then had to bring it back to matters at hand, to the present, to what was happening. Parents attending the l975 commencement ceremony for which we had chosen Brown as our speaker were bewildered. Why was he talking about Portugal? What could an insurrection among Portuguese army rank and ﬁle – the end of the Salazar regime – possibly have to do with their young adult childʼs impending integration into the world of job applications and a career?
Radical thought transversals of the kind Brown appreciated were not looked upon favourably at the East Coast graduate school I attended. ʻWell, youʼve certainly covered a lot of groundʼ, was the grudging professorial response I received to my ﬁrst presentation, on Balzac, but which had suddenly taken a lurch and veered into a discussion of Mao Zedong. The terse evaluation, from a narratologist, was delivered in an accent striving to sound British. (Brown, who was British, sounded like he grew up in Ohio.) When I returned to Santa Cruz several years later, this time as a colleague, I heard several, possibly apocryphal stories about Brown. How, while delivering a public lecture, he had been wrestled to the ground by an agitprop Bay Area character of the era known as ʻThe Peopleʼs Penisʼ – in full costume. How a radical lesbian feminist author had erected a tent on his front lawn in Pasatiempo and refused to leave until he agreed to an interview. Actually, it was very easy to speak with Brown.
He possessed an enormous curiosity about other peopleʼs work, their projects. In fact, what we experienced as his generosity – his willingness to read what one was writing and ponder it – was really nothing more than the effect of that far-reaching and restless intellectual appetite. There were only two requirements. First, you had to rid your writing of any gratingly academic prose; temporizing or posturing phrases like ʻas I will clarify later onʼ or ʻarguably the most rigorousʼ would be viciously scratched out on the returned text. And second, you had to submit to a strenuous mountain walk to pursue your discussion. A small, compact man of regular, moderate habits, Brown was in good physical condition well into his eighties. Younger, more dissolute friends and colleagues had a hard time keeping up with him in the forest. But he had no shortage of fellow walkers – anthropologists, philosophers, poets, political theorists, historians – mostly, I think, because you could count on a better response to your work than you could hope to receive from your own cohort of disciplinary specialists. Nobby, as he was called, knew the forest trails very well. He used the rhythms of the walk dramatically: waving his walking stick for punctuation, abruptly stopping short, sometimes hitting you squarely on the back between the shoulder blades – ʻYouʼve got it!ʼ He delighted in those moments when the conversation mimicked the landscape; when, suspended between the vectors of poetry and theory, you looked down and found yourself negotiating a treacherous passage across a fallen redwood over a chasm. Or when revelation came in the form of an unexpected juxtaposition of texts and the rare mushroom he had missed the week before. But the walks had a narrative logic as well.
They began with the estranging effect of having your own work refracted through whatever else Brown was reading at the time: Hesiod, Ivan Illich, a book on Shiʼite mysticism. By the return stretch, though, something like the proper ratio of Freud to Marx underlying your project had been ascertained. Looking back, I think it was mostly that: not enough Marx in some cases, not enough Freud in others. Go back to Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In the last walks we took it seemed that a heavier dose of Freud was always the answer. Brownʼs Freudo-Marxian theory of the l970s coincided with the most sustained critique in American history of what we used to call ʻthe military–industrial complexʼ.
That moment has now passed – in more ways than one. The names of Brown and his fellow travellers – Laing, the Black Mountain poets, Fromm, Merce Cunningham,
Illich, Octavio Paz, Marcuse, John Cage, Denise Levertov – seemed to disappear quite suddenly in the late l970s, under waves of translations from the French. And within the shell or cage of todayʼs academic conventions, breeding ground for specialization and opportunism, itʼs not clear that the kind of intellectual courage Brown stood for – thought pushed to the borders of possibility mediated by a powerful grounding in the materiality of the text – is much valued any more. Itʼs not clear that a ﬁgure like Brown could exist in todayʼs university. Brown did not live what he wrote; those who wanted him to embody ʻpolymorphous perversityʼ were disappointed. But it was very hard to distinguish his thinking from his teaching. In this he exempliﬁed a force and a moment in American intellectual life whose distance from us now can be measured by how little meaning the concept ʻAmerican intellectual lifeʼ seems to have at this moment.