Norman O. Brown. Once a favorite of counter-culture intellectuals, we do not hear his name very much anymore. He has been eclipsed, perhaps, by his prescience. Once a shocking voice of new revelations, Brown now reads like a strangely urgent advocate of ideas that postmodern culture takes for granted.
Brown burst onto the scene fifty years ago with Life Against Death: The Pyschoanalytical Meaning of History. It is an ambitious book that sets out to do nothing less than “to reappraise the nature and destiny of man” and provide “a wider general theory of human nature, culture, and history.”
Sigmund Freud is the central focus. By Freud’s way of thinking, the human person is caught in a painful bind. The psychic energy for life comes from archaic instinctual drives, the so-called Id. Freud never settled on a stable description of these primitive, pulsing drives, but he recognized that human personality, the Ego, emerges from the way in which these anarchic drives are shaped and redirected by repressions that we internalize. Therefore, according to Freud, human life is necessarily fraught with psychic tension. The Id is forever surging with primitive desires, and the Ego is forever blocking immediate satisfactions.
Freud, of course, thinks that we must live with the difficult fact that, at a very basic level, we are against ourselves. The Ego is loyal (rightfully, to his mind) to cultural norms that require us to forego satisfying the urgent desires of the Id.
Brown deems this acquiescence to the inevitable necessity of repression “pessimistic.” We should not be satisfied with the grim and never-ending project of trying to manage the conflict between culture and instinct. We must take sides! The future of humanity hangs in the balance!
There can be no doubt which side Norman O. Brown took. The Pleasure Principle (another Freudian term for instinctual desire) is “our real inner being.” Elsewhere: “The essence of man consists, not, as Descartes maintained, in thinking, but in desiring.” We are truly ourselves in “practical-sensuous activity.” Therefore, we should cast our lot with “the body.”
There is a great deal of high theory in Life Against Death, but the basic agenda flows directly from Brown’s exaltation of “the body.” Civilization becomes the great enemy of humanity. Culture, Brown asserts, is collective neurosis. The goal of a true humanism is to destroy the repressive traditions of culture, which really means destroying culture itself. “The abolition of repression,” according to Brown, will lead to “the resurrection of the body.” The triumph of desire is the last, best hope for humanity. An unashamed loyalty to Eros will free us from the ugly, deforming, neurotic project of moral self-discipline. We should seek to be free from “history” and live in “the Sabbath of eternity,” which is “the mode of unrepressed bodies.”
I first read Life Against Death as college freshman thirty years ago. Re-reading it now, I think myself fortunate. Brown theorized a great of what I have experienced in my adult life. My early encounter with the vision of desire liberated—a vision so forthright and imbued with millennial fervor—inoculated me to its more ironical, winking postmodern iterations.
As Brown recognized, the Empire of Desire requires an attack on the traditional, disciplinary forms of culture. Brown offers furious theoretical dialectics in his long chapters on the “anality” of dominant culture forms. He claims to show, for example, that “money is excrement.” The analysis is hopelessly jejune, but the basic thrust comes clear. Brown wants to show that what seem like high ideals and noble principles are simply basic instincts dressed up in the rhetorical finery of culture.
Postmodern theory has many forms, but they all follow Brown’s pattern. A grand theoretical scheme underwrites a bold set of rhetorical gestures designed to unmask inherited culture. Patriarchy or power or heterosexism or colonialism—it does not really matter. The point is simple. Culture can make no legitimate claim on my desires, because all norms, ideals, and principles are nothing more than other peoples desires and instincts sublimated and redirected toward social domination.
Throughout Life Against Death, Brown equates purposeful action with neurosis. Progress and history become negative terms for him. “Only repressed life,” he writes, “is in time.” Brown treats the social sense that we should be more advanced—or even more just—as something like an attack of the collective super-ego.
These days, multiculturalists attack the very idea of a normative culture, but often with vague claims about “inclusion” and no clear idea of what sort of world they seek. In contrast, Brown sees clearly. Brown wants to release us from the tensions of history. Therefore, it is essential to let go of purpose. “The unrepressed animal,” he writes, “carries no instinctual project to change his own nature.” History is all about doing.
In contrast, Brown wants us to affirm pure being, which he associates with the free, non-purposeful play of children. Or as he puts is elsewhere, we should embrace “that simple health that animals enjoy.”
A healthy, unrepressed humanity, according to Brown, also includes a desire for death, which Brown associates with sexual consummation as an image of perfect rest. In fact, an affirmation of death becomes the centerpiece of “the resurrection of the body,” because by his analysis the main driving force in culture is the effort to deny or somehow overcome death by way of collective achievements.
In Brown’s grand vision, therefore, humanity finds deliverance in the free play of “narcissism and erotic exuberance” married to a willingness to die. Put more simply, life is best when without cares and responsibilities, when nothing matters, when even death presents no threat. The ancient skeptics and Epicureans had a word for this ideal: ataraxia, a limpid state of freedom from any sort of worry, a condition of serene indifference.
When I was rereading Life Against Death, I came across a marginal comment I wrote as a freshman. It was on a page where Brown was waxing poetical about the end of repression that will liberate us from history. I wrote, “Sounds horrible. Everyone would lie around and do nothing.” It was fairly typical of my youthful, dismissive response.
I was naive. At age nineteen I underestimated the appeal of ataraxia, which has become the dominant culture goal of the postmodern West. What Pope Benedict describes as a “dictatorship of relativism” is not an epistemological theory, and it is certainly not presented as a counsel of despair. Quite the contrary, our postmodern gurus follow Brown closely: A world without truth is a blessing. For if we believe in no truth, then we are on our way to freedom from what Brown argues are the neurotic and destructive demands of civilization. If we draw the sting of truth out of culture, then we can get on with just living with “that simple health animals enjoy.”
I also underestimated the contorted possibilities of the human soul. For a book that champions rest, play, and erotic exuberance, Life Against Death is strangely urgent, passionate, and purposeful. For a man who wished to escape from history, he seems to have felt a duty to midwife a cultural revolution.
Brown’s transparently paradoxical duty to show the neurotic destructiveness of duty sheds light on so many of the strange combinations we see around us: the repression of repression (“Thou shalt not judge others!”), the bureaucratic imposition of diversity, the leaden hammer blows of theoretical analysis designed to encourage the free play of difference, arguments proving that truth is relative.
It all seems impossibly contradictory, but now I can see things more clearly. Brown not only anticipated the anti-cultural agenda of postmodernism, he also embodied its paradigmatic personality type. He was one of the first high priests of theory. Destroying culture and abolishing repression turns out to be an extraordinarily energizing goal.
“The resurrection of the body [the ascendancy of instinct over culture],” he wrote in his programmatic conclusion, “is a social project facing mankind as whole.” Building the Empire of Desire will need a revolutionary vanguard incensed with heroic virtue. This is why even the slightest whisper of traditional moral restraint today brings crashing condemnations from the cultural revolutionaries. To defend transgression for the sake of the future of humanity! Ah, what satisfactions of high moral purpose it brings.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is a professor of theology at Creighton University.