These days a man can wake up and say, “Enough! I’m tired of fighting against my innermost feelings. I’ve always felt myself to be a woman, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let myself go on like this.” Medical professionals stand ready at hand; psychologists are prepared to help. If he has generous and expansive insurance coverage, then the way is clear. Hormones are administered, surgeries performed, wardrobes changed.
Eventually family, friends, and coworkers are informed that Charlie is now Charlene.
In itself this does not shock me. The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second century, is a ribald tale of human depravity and excess, a useful reminder that Michael Jackson was not a uniquely modern phenomenon. The human psyche has always been unstable and diverse. Like water finding its way downhill, our intense wants and urgent desires seek paths toward satisfaction.
What’s surprising is the moral revolution in our culture. Charlie can become Charlene—and he can also feel entirely justified in demanding that everyone around him accept and even affirm his decision. Some may snicker inwardly or roll their eyes in unguarded moments. But for the most part we fall in line and do our best to make Charlie’s transformation seem like any other personal decision—a lifestyle choice, as we often say.
Richard Weaver once wrote that “every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.” At the level of specific ideas and general convictions, our age has settled into a number of pragmatic prohibitions and exhortations. No smoking! Count your calories! Build your résumé! Save for retirement! Safe sex! Locally sourced food! All this and more testifies to the ongoing and powerful role of behavior-shaping norms.
Yet, underneath all this we find an antinomian sensibility. We are trained to be suspicious of longstanding moral traditions; we are told to adopt a critical attitude toward inherited norms. That’s not just an academic habit of mind. It serves a moral conviction, widespread though often tacit: that human beings flourish to the degree that they’re free to satisfy their personal desires. The same conviction underwrites our therapeutic vocabulary of empowerment, the pedagogy of multiculturalism, and our paradoxical moral code of nonjudgmentalism. What makes for happiness and fulfillment—and here we enter into the metaphysical dream that defines our era—is an Empire of Desire. We affirm countless little disciplines to ensure health, productivity, success, and social harmony. But we push these social mores, disciplines, and restraints to the margins of our souls, creating space for bespoke lives tailored to our desires. In the Empire of Desire, Charlie can become Charlene without guilt, shame, or social stigma.
A largely forgotten figure today, Norman O. Brown was for a brief moment an intellectual celebrity. Born in 1913, he came to maturity during two great crises of the twentieth century: the Great Depression and World War II. Like many others, he responded by allying himself, in his youth, with progressive causes. However, in the aftermath of World War II, as the Cold War deepened and American society turned away from revolutionary politics, Brown became demoralized by what he took to be a spirit of complacency. This led him to a broader analysis that drew on psychological and metaphysical theories, not just political ideals. He came to fix on what he deemed the life-destroying consequence of culture: its fundamental goal of disciplining desire.
In 1959, he published the results of his reflections, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, an ambitious, speculative book that, along with Love’s Body (1966), gave theoretical expression to the counterculture of the 1960s. His muse was Sigmund Freud, a figure to whom many mid-twentieth-century Americans were turning in order to understand the inner workings of the soul and its relation to society.
By Freud’s way of thinking, the human person is caught in a painful bind. The psychic energy for life comes from instinctual desires, the so-called Id. Against the anarchy of primitive desires, Freud posited the existence of the Ego, the structured reality of our conscious lives that emerges from the way our instincts are shaped and redirected by the culturally mediated repressions we internalize.
Freud held out no hope that our instinctual desires could be brought into a deep, satisfying harmony within these repressive disciplines. As Philip Rieff observed in his unsurpassed account of the larger significance of psychoanalytic theory, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), the therapeutic goal, at least as Freud understood it, is not to achieve a resolution of conflict between Id and Ego but rather to seek its humane, scientific management. “He was more a statesman of the inner life,” wrote Rieff. Freud through his psychoanalytic approach aimed “at shrewd compromises with the human condition, not its basic transformation.” He believed that the repression and limitation of instinctual desires is the fundamental condition for civilized life, and he would have regarded the cultural radicalism of the 1960s with alarm.
Like so many optimistic American readers of Freud, Brown deemed this acquiescence to the inevitable necessity of self-attacking repression intolerably pessimistic. We should not be satisfied with the grim prospect of an unending cold war between the vigilant Ego and the all-desiring Id. Therefore, Brown read Freud metaphysically rather than therapeutically. The Id—pure desire—must be seen as the deepest, truest source of life. It’s a vital energy to be cherished and worshiped, not repressed and disciplined.
Brown’s decision to make desire his redemptive principle was a stroke of genius. Freud (and the rest of modern social science) faced a puzzling fact. What would seem to be the most natural and urgent dimension of the soul—our instinctual desires—must always and everywhere be controlled and dominated by moral ideals and cultural norms. But where do these norms gain their power? In traditional cultures this power comes from on high. For Plato all reality is tensed with a yearning to return to the transcendent source of being. Biblical religion envisions the more straightforward mechanism of law given by God. Because he was a scientist, Freud was committed to a naturalistic explanation. This led to a paradox. The Id—that is to say, the sum of our instinctual desires—must somehow provide the explanation for its own repression. But how can the self-repressing imperatives of the Ego be energized by the very instincts they repress?
Freud brilliantly devised a mechanism to explain how this is possible. A process of sublimation refines and redirects instinctual desires to refresh and renew the psychic potency of the repressive norms. Erotic desire circulates back on itself, now in the form of the stamping power of social norms that tell us “do this” and “don’t do that.” From this theory of the instinctual source of culture, Brown draws the obvious metaphysical conclusion: “The essence of man consists, not, as Descartes maintained, in thinking, but in desiring.” From this, a moral obligation follows: Our goal should be to live in accord with this essence, which he refers to as “the body.”
The revolutionary and distinctively postmodern character of Life Against Death flows directly from this exaltation of desire. In traditional views, “the body” is seen as subordinate, our desires ordered toward something higher. For example, as Plato observes in one of his dialogues, we are erotically attracted to the beautiful body of another person, but we intuitively sense that our desire will not be fully satisfied, for human bodies age, decay, and lose their alluring qualities. So we climb the ladder of desire, as it were, relishing the beauty of statues, bodies made of enduring marble. Yet even this will not satisfy the soul, thinks Plato, and so we take a further and final step, transforming our erotic desire for beautiful bodies into an intellectual contemplation of the very idea of beauty.
Aristotle had a less dreamy view. As he recognized, we need to be subjected to the disciplining power of cultural norms that guide our desires into stable forms, the virtues. In the Poetics, for instance, he praises tragedies that inflame our emotions but then resolve them through plausible plot developments, ending in a resolution that leaves audiences enlightened and sobered. This need for external discipline became even stronger in the Christian tradition. St. Augustine saw that original sin perverts our desires, making them stubbornly ordered toward self-love. Moreover, he saw that we are destined for something higher than the natural nobility of Aristotle’s well-trained soul. Fellowship with God extends beyond our natural possibilities. Therefore, we need a divine repair of our disordered desires, as well as a pedagogy that takes us beyond this world. Faith, hope, and love stretch the soul upward. They are, as St. Thomas put it centuries later, supernatural virtues.
Modern humanism rejects this Christian vision but nonetheless retains the vision’s basic structure. Kant articulated what he took to be the universal moral law for all rational creatures, and he thought this critical principle able to transform external commandments into an internal law that the person can accept as his own, thereby becoming his own tutor and disciplinarian. The later Romantics were uneasy with Kant’s absorption of individuality into a universal humanity defined by reason. Poets such as the young Wordsworth emphasized authenticity, moments of intense feeling that unified his consciousness. The deepest moral law, therefore, is to be true to oneself. Nonetheless, the consensus remained intact. A law emerges from within the self—from reason, experience, or a lightning flash of self-possession. It properly governs the soul, giving purpose and direction to “the body.”
Not surprisingly, in Brown’s view, none of these views of human flourishing is satisfactory. All treat desire as something to be disciplined, dooming the human person to perpetual alienation—the conflict of life (“the body”) against death (“repression”). He does not wish to be a reformer. He has no interest in replacing today’s disciplining cultural norms with another, supposedly purified set. He’s not even loyal to the nebulous norm of authenticity, because he saw that the ideal of a unified consciousness becomes a repressive ideal that disciplines our ever changing, often conflicting desires. Instead, by his way of thinking, culture itself becomes the great enemy of humanity. The goal of a true humanism, he argues, requires a new metaphysical dream, one in which we affirm the supreme redemptive power of desire in all its primitive, polymorphous perversity.
His exhortations are soaring. We should forsake the repressive, habituating project of culture and embrace “that simple health that animals enjoy.” The destruction of civilization—“the abolition of repression”—becomes the great imperative against imperatives. No longer forming life in accord with the projects of progress, competition, and domination that empower the Ego, in a post-cultural world we shall live in “the mode of unrepressed bodies,” cultivating a “Dionysian or body mysticism” whereby an undifferentiated biological mass, “the body,” simply seeks and finds satisfaction. An unmitigated loyalty to our essence as instinct-driven animals will usher in the End of History, trigger “the resurrection of the body,” and establish the timeless, unchanging, anarchic, and antinomian Empire of Desire.
It’s easy to make fun of Norman O. Brown. His appeals to the “dialectical metaphysics of hope” can sound hopelessly jejune and the Dionysian ecstasies overwrought. Nonetheless, his mobile metaphysical imagination allowed him to recognize the larger implications of modern, naturalistic conceptions of culture, and he drew the obvious conclusions in bold, prophetic strokes. Today, nobody talks about “body mysticism,” but postmodern cultural theory teaches that social norms and cultural ideals are nothing more than the extruded, solidified manifestations of the primitive, primeval dimensions of the human psyche: sexual desires, will to power, a lust for domination, and so forth. Even our selfish goals—to look thin or to dress for success—are analyzed as social constructs energized by manipulative advertising driven by capitalist desire for profit. All norms, including those we impose on ourselves, emerge from a more primary circulation of desire.
Moreover, the theoretical gestures that have predominated over the past forty years fit the antinomianism championed by Brown. They are unified by a metaphysical abhorrence of law and a preference for spontaneity. Terms such as “metanarrative,” “univocity,” “foundationalism,” and “presence” suggest determinative principles and authoritative truths. Not surprisingly, these pronomian terms are consistently used to refute, denounce, or discredit. In contrast, terms such as “difference,” “heterogeneity,” and “absence” cut against enduring principles and stable truths, and they are always deployed to evoke positive alternatives. “Marginality” is bathed in luminous light. “Alterity” serves as a liberating force. I can think of no postmodern theoretical gesture that does not reflect the broad shift in the West toward the antinomian ideal. Something like Brown’s metaphysical dream predominates.
The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo provides a particularly clear and forthright example. “Philosophy, today,” he writes in After Christianity (2002), “conceives of Being as event and as destiny of weakening.” The modern collapse of Christianity as the source of law for the self and society seems like a failure, but it is in fact the realization of Christianity’s true spiritual genius. We are heading, he prophesies, “toward emancipation by diminishing strong structures (in thought, individual consciousness, political power, social relations, and religion).” Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.
Few contemporary academics have Vattimo’s flair for metaphysical rhetoric or willingness to give theological expression to a vision of human flourishing. However, the practice of cultural study over recent decades has been given over almost entirely to what Vattimo calls “weakening.” Brown himself has a long chapter devoted to showing that “money is excrement.” The effect is to disenchant the social norms of bourgeois society. I doubt that Michel Foucault, the most influential social theorist of recent decades, ever read Brown, but his intellectual life was devoted to detailed studies of cultural norms oriented toward the very same goal. Every gimcrack cultural theorist today has internalized this mode of analysis: What seems like a noble cultural ideal or elevating vision of the good life is, in fact, the intellectually sublimated form of a desire for domination, or a class interest, or the metaphysics of presence. Thus the critical platitude of our postmodern age: Culture is an artificially solidified, socially sanctified, and rhetorically disguised expression of the desires of the powerful.
This presumption about culture is so widespread that it has become an item of almost unconscious conviction. In Harper’s Magazine, writer and literary scholar Mark Slouka launches a sally against what he regards as the crushing dominance of economic rationality in contemporary higher education. We are, he writes, “hypnotized by quarterly reports and profit margins.” Against this show-me-the-money mentality, Slouka pleads for the importance of culture, hoping to revitalize “the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities.” Yet, this would-be humanist is a citizen of the Empire of Desire: “I believe that what rules us is less the world of goods and services than the immaterial ones of whims, assumptions, delusions, and lies.” The dark turn is typical of our era. Culture isn’t really “immaterial” in any metaphysical sense. Instead, what we take to be cultural ideals and norms for living a humane life are disguised and deluded expressions of . . . Slouka doesn’t fill in the blank, but contemporary literary and cultural theory consistently gives the same answer: Cultural artifacts are refined expressions of our material, instinctual desires for pleasure and domination.
Slouka’s plea for humanistic study cannot succeed, because he cannot conceive of an alternative to the Empire of Desire. Why should we devote ourselves to the arts and humanities? Aren’t we told that, at bottom, they’re just the desires of others costumed with metaphysical terms and dolled up with well-written sentences? We default to GDP, because, as his own cynicism shows, our metaphysical dreams are dominated by images of desire: desires expressed, satisfied, sublimated, repressed, redirected, imposed, and reified. Therefore students, educators, politicians—all of us, to one degree or another—draw the sensible conclusion. As long as we cannot imagine anything lasting and true other than primitive instincts, we might as well concentrate our minds on the economic, medical, psychological factors that promise to maximize our satisfaction. If we are fated to be ruled by desire, then we ought to acquaint ourselves with the logic of its circulation and adopt our postmodern roles as bureaucrats, therapists, managers, and other well-groomed functionaries trained to analyze and maintain the Empire of Desire.
It’s important to recognize that the downward push of this Empire—the essence of life is sexual desire and the will-to-power—is entirely consistent with something that looks like moral zeal. Brown styled himself a new Moses: Choose life! The Empire of Desire is a metaphysical dream, something beyond—if not above, then below—the reach of culture. We must seek to realize the dream. Life is better, more humane, and more just to the degree that we succeed in relaxing the grip of traditional morality over our interior lives so that our desires can be more freely satisfied, so that Charlie can become Charlene.
To serve this dream we’ve empowered the dictatorship of relativism, which is closely allied with the harrying mentality of political correctness. Every empire needs rules and regulation, which we certainly have. There are some minimal but bright-line limits. Homosexuality is just fine, but adults having sex with adolescents is absolutely prohibited and severely punished—a historical anomaly. Few think marijuana taboo, but smoking tobacco is severely limited and widely shamed. Recycling has become a sign of the latter-day virtue of environmentalism. There are also many hopelessly vague rules. What, exactly, turns casual sex into date rape? Lack of consent, of course, but when is the drunken “yes” really a “no”? And we have today’s “moral” dilemmas. What are we to think about huge corporations that market organic food made by local producers?
Older moral traditions also endure in diminished forms, offering resistance to the Empire of Desire. Nobody thinks twice about cohabitation before marriage, but when couples get serious they expect monogamy and still resent betrayal. Few admire cheats and liars. While we may fail in our own lives, we honor the sacrifices parents make for their children. People still salute the flag. The Empire’s dominion isn’t complete; sometimes we feel the spurs of guilt when we transgress, and sometimes we thrill to moral ideals.
Nevertheless, in this regime moral authority is largely exercised for a very specific purpose: to minimize the psychological power of moral authority. Middle-school teachers catechize their students: One is to be nonjudgmental—one must be nonjudgmental. We’re now trained to counter the slightest hint of judgment with deflationary gestures: “Speaking as I do from a white, privileged, first-world perspective,” etc. The Empire’s anti-law holds sway: It is forbidden to forbid. Our moral judgments need to be transformed into expressions of class bias, historical circumstances, or (best of all) personal preferences.
The greatest threat we presently face is not Islamic terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation, genocide, or poverty, pressing as these problems may be. The antinomian revolution in the postmodern West poses a more fundamental existential threat to the human future, because it erodes the cultural capital necessary to respond to these challenges, and to others. The richest and most powerful countries in the world are dominated by an intellectual class that, however individually self-disciplined and well intentioned and personally influenced by inherited moral traditions, give metaphysical priority to desire. They train us to live as docile, dutiful citizens in the Empire of Desire, asking never what is right and true but instead what is “healthy” and “empowering.”
In his apocalyptic reveries, Brown failed to see the practical upshot of his hoped-for “resurrection of the body.” Instead of life abundant, we are sliding toward a world overseen by cynical and increasingly paternalistic elites who are reconciled to techniques of governance appropriate to human herds animated by raw lusts and fears. We can see the firstfruits: an expanding underclass disciplined by threats of incarceration and domesticated by mass entertainment, boys managed with prescription drugs, growing industries of therapeutic intervention, and the beginnings of paternalistic control, whether of the blatant sort proposed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg or the hidden “nudges” advocated by Cass Sunstein, a law professor who has used behavioral economics to explain how policy planners can use incentives to guide free choice. Today’s social theorist with an interest in the common good recommends carefully designed cattle prods with calibrated dials that range from the soft setting of economic incentives to the harsh option of lethal force.
The bureaucratic instruments of social management become increasingly important, justified by philanthropic benevolence and palliated with a therapeutic empathy. Legal regulation of personal behavior, family life, and social interactions expands in order to take over the ordering, harmonizing function once performed by an unofficial but deeply internalized cultural nomos. We’re policed, regulated, and managed. Even the children of the wealthy are disciplined—not by a moral ideal but rather by the brutal competition for spots at top colleges and universities, and then for the top jobs. Thus runs a world that has lost its capacity to dream of something higher than desire—something to desire.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.