Life Against Death
|Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History|
The 1970 Sphere Books edition, featuring a reproduction of the upper portion of Hans Baldung's 1517 painting Death and the Maiden
|Author(s)||Norman O. Brown|
|Followed by||Love's Body|
Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History is a book by American classicist Norman O. Brown, first published in 1959, with a second edition in 1985. A radical analysis and critique of the work of Sigmund Freud, it tries to provide a theoretical rationale for a nonrepressive civilization, and has been compared to works such as Frankfurt school philosopher Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization and French philosopher Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization. It explores parallels between psychoanalysis and Martin Luther's theology, and also draws on revolutionary themes in western religious thought, especially the body mysticism of Jakob Böhme and William Blake. The result of an interest in psychoanalysis that began when Marcuse suggested to Brown that he should read Freud, Life Against Death became famous when Norman Podhoretz recommended it to Lionel Trilling. Though it has been called one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century, some critics have found it of lesser weight than Marcuse's work. It has been suggested that, despite its objectives, the book's arguments imply that sexual repression is biologically inevitable. Brown wrote that his subsequent book Love's Body was written to confuse any followers he acquired due to Life Against Death and destroy its positions.
Brown, whose background was in classical studies, became interested in psychoanalysis because of the influence of Marcuse, a philosopher associated with the Institute for Social Research based in Frankfurt. Marcuse had little direct concern with Freud while in Frankfurt, but devoted more attention to psychoanalysis in the 1950s, and in 1953 suggested to Brown that he should read Freud. Brown wrote in Life Against Death that he had begun a careful study of Freud in 1953, because he felt the need to reconsider both human nature and the human race's future prospects. Commenting that he had inherited from Protestantism a conscience which dictated that intellectual work should be directed toward ending or minimizing human suffering, Brown addressed the book to everyone ready to consider new ideas and possibilities. Brown proposed a synthesis of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and history, calling Géza Róheim's efforts in that direction pioneer work of significance second only to Freud's. Brown also paid homage to Marcuse's Eros and Civilization, "the first book, after Wilhelm Reich's ill-fated adventures, to reopen the possibility of the abolition of repression."
Paul Robinson writes that radicals such as Reich and Róheim represented a minority current of opinion within psychoanalysis, which by the 1940s was viewed as fundamentally conservative by the European and American intellectual community. Critics outside the psychoanalytic movement, whether on the political left or right, agreed in seeing Freud as a conservative. The left-wing writer Erich Fromm had argued that several aspects of psychoanalytic theory served the interests of political reaction in his The Fear of Freedom (1942), an assessment confirmed by sympathetic writers on the right. Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) portrayed Freud as a man who urged men to make the best of an inevitably unhappy fate, and admirable for that reason.
Life Against Death was one of three books published in the 1950s that challenged this prevailing interpretation of Freud as a conservative, the others being Trilling's Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955) and Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955). Their authors believed that Freud showed us that we have paid a high price for civilization and that his critical element was to be found in his late metahistorical studies, works considered unscientific by orthodox analysts and reactionary by the neo-Freudians. Robinson credits Brown and Marcuse with systematically analyzing psychoanalytic theory in order to reveal its critical implications and of going beyond Reich and Róheim in probing the dialetical subtleties of Freud's thought, thereby reaching conclusions more extreme and utopian than theirs. He finds Trilling's work of lesser value than that of Brown and Marcuse.
Robinson notes that Eros and Civilization and Life Against Death have often been compared, and he finds them similar both in general outlook and in the specific Freudian concepts to which they devote the most attention. They both attempt to show that the ultimate implications of psychoanalysis are critical rather than conservative, see Freud's greatness in his metahistorical analysis of "the general neurosis of mankind", argue that modern man is sick with the burdens of sexual repression and uncontrolled aggression, attempt to make explicit the hidden trend in psychoanalysis that promised a nonrepressive civilization as a solution to the dilemma of modern unhappiness, and accept the most radical and discouraging of Freud's psychological assumptions: the all-pervasive role of sexuality and the existence of the death instinct. He writes that Brown, unlike Marcuse, had strong mystical inclinations and drew effectively on revolutionary themes in western religious thought, especially the body mysticism of Jakob Böhme and William Blake.
Brown offers what Robinson sees as a unique analysis of the problems associated with sexuality and human mortality, and equally distinctive solutions to them. Brown expounded "the underlying ambivalence of Freud's late instinctual dualism", in which "Eros and Death were seen as antagonistic psychological principles which constantly threatened to collapse into one another." Unlike Marcuse, however, who emphasized the antithetical nature of the two instincts, Brown stressed their underlying unity, since this approach suggested a way of escaping Freud's conclusion that aggression was inevitable. Brown argued that Freud did not consider aggression a basic psychological fact, but rather a secondary manifestation of a more fundamental instinctual force, the death instinct: it was "the external expression of an impulse originally directed against the self". In Brown's interpretation of Freud, aggression becomes a problem "because Eros could carry out its project of creating life only when the death instinct was frustrated in its original enterprise. In order that men might live (and love), they were inevitably forced to destroy, to direct the energies of the death instinct away from themselves onto their fellowmen."
Freud's analysis of the dynamics of Life and Death was mistaken, according to Brown, since Freud's discovery of the ultimate identity of the two instincts implied that there is no necessary antagonism between Eros and Thanatos: they exist in harmony at a deeper level of psychic life and aggression was therefore not inevitable. Brown believed that the death instinct need not be externalized in the form of aggression if "men could recapture the original undifferentiated harmony of Life and Death." Brown therefore called for an end to the "repression of death" that perpetuated aggression. People had to learn "how to die" or, more concretely, to learn "how to grow old." Robinson calls Brown's argument "daring", and stresses that it is a very different solution to the problem of aggression than that proposed by Marcuse, since it was a psychological solution that involved adopting a new attitude toward death and did not involve political or economic revolution. Robinson compares Brown and Marcuse's treatment of Reich: both criticize him for "misrepresenting the problem of repression as one of genital sexuality" and advocated polymorphous perversity instead, but Brown again provided an exclusively psychological argument.
Brown concluded that if undifferentiated sexuality is the ultimate measure of human happiness, then any form of sexual organization is already repressive. While Marcuse had in general "complained only of the tyranny of genital sexuality" and suggested that "the pregenital libidinal had to be reactivated in a nonrepressive civilization", Brown maintained that the pregenital organizations were "just as tyrannical as adult sexuality" and that the earlier organization of libidinal energy into oral, anal, phallic syndromes was "as foreign to the undifferentiated eroticism of early infancy" as genital sexuality. Brown thus did not accept Marcuse's "characterization of the sexual deviant as a prophet of polymorphous perversity". In a truly nonrepressive civilization, "sexuality would be completely undifferentiated" and even the distinction between the sexes would become insignificant.
Brown did not accept Freud's theory of an innate biological dynamic leading from undifferentiated sexuality to adult genitality, and suggested instead that the explanation of how mankind abandoned the "primeval happiness" of polymorphous perversity was to be found through an analysis of social history. Robinson comments that Brown in fact offered no such analysis, and instead produced an "exclusively ontogentic explanation", one he finds inconsistent with "the prophetic intentions" of Brown's larger argument. Brown explained repressive differentiation in terms of Freud's revised theory of anxiety, according to which anxiety produces repression rather than the reverse. Brown, like Róheim, saw the basic form of anxiety as separation anxiety, and also identified separation with death, a breakdown of the union of mother and child that he saw as "the essence of life." Robinson finds the identification of life with union and death with separation neither easy to understand nor essential to Brown's argument. Brown's crucial point according to Robinson is that anxiety can be identified with separation, and that separation causes anxiety because the union between mother and child had been so long and lovingly indulged.
Children respond to the anxiety caused by separation through various projects to reestablish the original unity, projects Brown identified as "flights from death", but which Robinson believes could have been described more simply as flights from separation. These projects involve various organizations of the libido that Brown characterizes as repressive and which required abandoning the polymorphous perversity of earliest infancy. Examples are the oral project, in which children try to overcome separation through "the hypercathexis of the act of sucking", reuniting themselves with their mothers through the mouth (and in fantasy, ingesting them entirely), the anal project, in which children engage in "symbolic manipulation of feces as a magic instrument for restoring communion with the mother", and the phallic project, which is the attempt to reunite with the mother through the penis, identified with the entire body. These projects all involve reorganization of the libidinal economy, transferring sexual energy from the entire body to particular organs, and in all of them repression is self-imposed. The differentiation of sexuality occurs not because of an external force such as social or economic exigency, but because of "self-repression."
Critical evaluations 
Podhoretz writes that Brown, "issued a powerful challenge to Freud's doctrine that human possibilities were inherently and insurmountably limited. But he did so not by arguing, as earlier critics like Karen Horney and Erich Fromm had done, that the master's theories had been valid only, or mainly, for the particular kind of society in which he himself had lived. Disdaining the cheap relativism of such tactics, Brown set out to show that Freud's pessimistic sense of human possibility did not necessarily follow from his analysis of human nature, an analysis Brown accepted as sound in all essential respects. The brilliance of Life Against Death lay in the amazingly convincing case Brown was able to build for the consistency of that analysis with his own vision of a life of 'polymorphous perversity', a life of play and of complete instinctual and sexual freedom."
Robinson sees Brown's exploration of the radical implications of psychoanalysis as in some ways more rigorous and systematic than that of Marcuse. He also finds Life Against Death more elegantly written than Eros and Civilization, attributing this to Brown having a background in literature and the classics rather than philosophy and political theory. Yet while admiring the rigor and imagination of Brown's arguments, he believes that his analysis of the genesis of sexual differentiation unwittingly subverts its purpose of showing that a nonrepressive organization of sexual life is possible. Robinson argues that if tyrannical sexual organizations result from inability to accept separation or death, and if this flight from separation is in turn based on the fact of prolonged infantile dependence, then sexual repression is a biological inevitability. Brown thus, despite his objectives, offers "a counsel of despair", since his analysis of sexual repression fails to offer a theoretical rationale for a nonrepressive civilization. Brown was unable to either explain the historical rise of repressive civilization or to provide a solution to the problems of modern living. He believes that while Brown's work is psychologically more radical than that of Marcuse, it is politically more timid, and fails to transform psychoanalytic theory into historical and political categories. He deems Marcuse a finer theorist than Brown, and believes he provides a more substantial treatment of Freud. Robinson also finds the subtitle of Life Against Death, "the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History", to be "pompous and misleading".
Joel Kovel, who writes that Life Against Death shows that Luther's personality was to a considerable extent based upon anal fantasies and that Luther achieved some of his spiritual breakthroughs while defecating, also finds the work comparable to, but less successful than, Eros and Civilization. Liam Hudson assesses the two books differently from Robinson and Kovel, finding Eros and Civilization more reductively political and therefore less stimulating than Life Against Death. Stephen Frosh finds Eros and Civilization and Life Against Death to be among the most important advances towards a psychoanalytic theory of art and culture, although he finds the way these works turn the internal psychological process of repression into a model for social existence as a whole to be disputable. Myron Sharaf criticizes Brown for misinterpreting Reich, writing that while Brown presents Reich's view as being that the pregenital stages would disappear if full genitality were established, Reich actually believed that society represses both pregenital and genital sexuality, leading to the failure of some persons to reach the genital level and the vulnerability of others to regress to pregenital levels. Reich's view, according to Sharaf, was that given full genital expression, pregenital impulses and conflicts do not disappear but simply lose their significance and their power to disrupt healthy genitality.
Richard Webster writes that, like Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther, Life Against Death suggests numerous similarities between Lutheran Protestantism and classical psychoanalysis. Webster believes that the resemblances Brown found between Protestantism and psychoanalysis are scarcely disputable. However, he writes that, "Some of those who are members of a Protestant church, or who hold any form of religious belief, may take comfort in discovering that the revealed truths perceived by Luther are in harmony with the analytic hypotheses produced by Freud. Those who possess greater intellectual caution, however, or those who hold no religious beliefs, may well feel some scepticism in the face of such an easy congruence of ancient faith and modern reason. They will be prompted to ask to what extent we should regard psychoanalysis not as a scientific approach to human nature but as a disguised continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition." Webster describes Brown's work, like that of Marcuse, Jacques Lacan, and several other modern thinkers, as "a doomed and tragic attempt to reconstruct at the level of the intellect a sensual identity which has been crucified at the level of the spontaneous and vital body."
Brown's view 
Brown was later to comment that Life Against Death, "records the first revision of my historical identity, from Marx to Marx and Freud", noting that Marxism, his first "historical identity", "was wrecked in the frozen landscapes of the Cold War, the defeat of the simplistic hopes for a better world that inspired the Henry Wallace campaign for the Presidency in 1948." Brown, who saw Louis Zukofsky's poetry as anticipating the ideas of both Life Against Death and his subsequent book Love's Body, has called Life Against Death "my first exuberant surge of premature post-Marxist energy", writing that in it he had wagered his "intellectual life on the idea of finding in Freud what was missing in Marx." Brown "found in Freud's analysis of the pathological dimension of human desires the basis for a post-Marxist critique of capitalism." Commenting on his intellectual development, Brown noted that, "My Marxist background had given me a healthy prejudice against moneymaking. Imagine my excitement when I discovered Sandor Ferenczi's article 'The Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money'; with its immortal conclusion, 'After what has been said money is seen to be nothing other than deodorized, dehydrated shit that has been made to shine.'"
That this "turn to Freud" lead to the writing of Love's Body, which concluded that "there is only poetry", showed, according to Brown, that "the change in direction taken from Freud, resolutely pursued, in the end dictated a massive breakdown of categories of traditional 'rationality' still accepted as authoritative by both Marx and Freud; that massive breakdown...which Nietzsche baptized with the name of Dionysus. Already the last chapter in Life Against Death, not really knowing what it was saying, proposes 'Dionysian consciousness' as a 'way out.'" Brown wrote that it was clear to him in Life Against Death, "that at that deep level which can only be expressed in myth or metaphor, Freud's "instinct theory" needed to be remythologized in terms of Dionysus, that is to say in terms of instinctual dialectics rather than instinctual dualism. Or, to use another metaphor, in terms of Heraclitus rather than Empedocles." Brown concluded that the world will always be 'ever-living fire', and that the last chapter of Life Against Death was disfigured by the misleading idea that the world could be 'a pastoral scene of peace and pleasure, luxe calme et volupté, Baudelaire's utopian image invoked by Marcuse in Eros and Civilization'."
Life Against Death became famous partly because Podhoretz recommended it to Trilling, who produced "a favorable review of this central text of the nascent cultural radicalism toward which he was in general antagonistic and which - with Mailer, Brown, and me in mind - he would dryly characterize as 'the Norman invasion.'" Brown's work affected Foucault's reception in the United States: American reviewers of Foucault's Madness and Civilization noted that it shared a "kinship in mood if not in tone or method" to Life Against Death and its "strident paean to the primal id." J. G. Merquior sees Life Against Death and Madness and Civilization as similar calls "for the liberation of the Dionysian id."
Todd Dufresne, who compares Life Against Death to both Marcuse's Eros and Civilization and Paul Goodman's 1960 book Growing Up Absurd, notes that its influence can be measured in terms of sales figures: over fifty thousand copies had been sold by 1966. Dufresne, who finds Brown's work questionable, doubts that readers of Brown's work understood its critique of the repressive society well, suggesting that many student activists might have shared the view of Morris Dickstein, to whom Marcuse and Brown's work meant, "not some ontological breakthrough for human nature, but probably just plain fucking, lots of it". Hudson believes Life Against Death presaged a collapse of "our infatuation with hard science", but writes that it was neglected by radicals because its publication coincided with that of Eros and Civilization.
Camille Paglia identifies Life Against Death as an influence on her 1990 work of literary criticism Sexual Personae, writing that Brown's work, along with that of Allen Ginsberg, Leslie Fiedler, and Harold Bloom, provided an alternative to the New Criticism, which she sees as insupportable because of its exclusion of history and psychoanalysis. Paglia believes that in Life Against Death and Love's Body, "the deeply learned and classically trained Brown made an unsurpassed fusion of literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, and politics." Paglia credits Brown's books with making a major impact on American culture in the 1960s, writing that along with Arnold Hauser's The Social History of Art they helped her to see Foucault as foolish. Paglia laments, however, that, "my generation was condemned to live out what was only imagined by the older Norman O. Brown", noting that the excesses of the 1960s lead many people to disaster. She has also called Life Against Death, "one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century" and "what Michel Foucault longed to achieve but never did." Discussing her intellectual development, Paglia observes that Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media was published in 1964, the year she entered college, while Brown's Life Against Death and Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel had been published five years earlier. Paglia sees Brown as a thinker similar to McLuhan and Fiedler, writing of all three men that, "They understood the creative imagination, and they extended their insights into speculation about history and society. Their influence was positive and fruitful: They did not impose their system on acolytes but liberated a whole generation of students to think freely and to discover their own voices." Paglia proposes their work as an alternative to that of Jacques Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, which she believes has little relevance to North American culture.
Edward W. Said called Life Against Death a vanguard book, noting that it contained a very appreciative study of Jonathan Swift. Kovel identifies Life Against Death, along with Eros and Civilization, as models for his 1991 work History and Spirit, noting that he encountered them at a time when his ambitions as a psychoanalyst and his hopes for an emancipated politics were in conflict. Kovel believes that Marcuse and Brown's place in history is uncertain, but nevertheless stresses their importance for the development of his thinking, writing that they gave him the hope that psychoanalysis could be turned away from a narrow clinical orthodoxy and toward emancipatory purposes. He sees the main difference between Marcuse and Brown as being that the former remained a historical materialist with a political emphasis, while Brown became an apolitical idealist.
See also 
- Brown 1985. p. iv.
- Dufresne 2000. p. 111-112.
- Dufresne 2000. p. 103.
- Dufresne 2000. p. 112.
- Brown 1985. p. xvii.
- Brown 1985. p. xix.
- Brown 1985. p. xx.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 147-148.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 148-149.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 223-224.
- Keen 1974. p. 28.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 225-226.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 226-228.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 228-229.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 229-230.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 230-231.
- Podhoretz 1999. p. 199.
- Robinson 1990. pp. 224, 231-233.
- Kovel 1970. p. 131.
- Kovel 1991. p. 198.
- Kovel 1981. p. 272.
- Hudson 1976. p. 75.
- Frosh 1987. pp. 21-22, 150.
- Sharaf 1983. pp. 103, 493.
- Webster 2005. pp. 5, 555.
- Webster 2005. p. 476.
- Brown 1974. p. 33.
- Brown 1991. pp. 158, 170, 171, 179.
- Brown 1991. pp. 180, 190.
- Podhoretz 1999. pp. 75.
- Merquior 1991. p. 25.
- Merquior 1991. p. 33.
- Dufresne 2000. pp. 111-112.
- Paglia 1993. pp. ix, 114.
- Paglia 1993. p. 211-212.
- Paglia 2000.
- Said 1984. p. 72.
- Kovel 1991. pp. 1, 239.
- Brown, Norman O. (1974). In Keen, Sam. Voices and Visions. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-064260-2.
- Brown, Norman O. (1985). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6144-4.
- Brown, Norman O. (1991). Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07298-7.
- Dufresne, Todd (2000). Tales from the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3885-8.
- Frosh, Stephen (1987). The Politics of Psychoanalysis: An Introduction to Freudian and Post-Freudian Theory. Hong Kong: Macmillan Education. ISBN 0-333-39613-8.
- Hudson, Liam (1976). The Cult of the Fact. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-01221-5.
- Kovel, Joel (1970). White Racism: A Psychohistory. New York: Allen Lane The Penguin Press. ISBN 7139 0162 4 Check
- Kovel, Joel (1981). The Age of Desire: Case Histories of a Radical Psychoanalyst. New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-394-50818-1.
- Kovel, Joel (1991). History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-2916-5.
- Merquior, JG (1991). Foucault. London: FontanaPress. ISBN 0-00-686226-8.
- Paglia, Camille (1993). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017209-2.
- Podhoretz, Norman (1999). Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Helman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-85594-I Check
- Robinson, Paul (1990). The Freudian Left. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9716-7.
- Said, Edward W. (1984). The World, the Text, and the Critic. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0 571 13264 2.
- Sharaf, Myron (1983). Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich. London: Andre Deutsch. ISBN 233 97544 6 Check
- Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4.
- Online articles
- Paglia, Camille. "The pussy-whipped princelings of the press corps". Retrieved 2011-05-04.
- Paglia, Camille. "The North American intellectual tradition". Retrieved 2012-06-19.