Life Against Death
Cover of the first edition
|Author||Norman O. Brown|
|Cover artist||Harry Zelenko|
|Publisher||Wesleyan University Press|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Followed by||Love's Body|
Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959; second edition 1985) is a book by American classicist Norman O. Brown, in which the author offers a radical analysis and critique of the work of Sigmund Freud, tries to provide a theoretical rationale for a nonrepressive civilization, explores parallels between psychoanalysis and Martin Luther's theology, and 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. It has been compared to works such as Frankfurt school philosopher Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955) and philosopher Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization (1961).
Though Life Against Death has been called one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century, some critics have found it of lesser weight than Eros and Civilization. It has been suggested that, despite his objectives, Brown's arguments imply that sexual repression is biologically inevitable. Brown eventually repudiated Life Against Death: he called parts of it "quite immature" and wrote of his Love's Body (1966) that it 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 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.
Seeking a passage to a "post-Marxist world", Brown began his turn to psychoanalysis partly because he had become disenchanted with politics after the failure of Henry Wallace's 1948 Presidential candidacy. In Life Against Death, Brown wrote 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 analyst Géza Róheim's efforts in that direction pioneer work of significance second only to Freud's. Brown also commended Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955), calling it "the first book, after Wilhelm Reich's ill-fated adventures, to reopen the possibility of the abolition of repression."
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 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, in Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), portrayed Freud as a man who admirably urged men to make the best of an inevitably unhappy fate.
In the 1950s, Marcuse and Brown, together with Trilling in Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955), challenged this interpretation of Freud. They believed that Freud showed that a high price has been paid for civilization, and that Freud's critical element was to be found in his late metahistorical studies, works considered unscientific by orthodox analysts and reactionary by the neo-Freudians. Marcuse and Brown shared a similar general outlook and devoted the most attention to the same Freudian concepts. They saw Freud's greatness in his metahistorical analysis of "the general neurosis of mankind", argued that modern man is sick with the burdens of sexual repression and uncontrolled aggression, attempted to make explicit the hidden critical trend in psychoanalysis that promised a nonrepressive civilization as a solution to the dilemma of modern unhappiness, and accepted the most radical and discouraging of Freud's psychological assumptions: the pervasive role of sexuality and the existence of the death instinct. Brown, unlike Marcuse, had strong mystical inclinations and drew on revolutionary themes in western religious thought, especially the body mysticism of Böhme and Blake.
Brown offers an analysis of the problems associated with sexuality and human mortality, and 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, seeing his crucial point as being 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."
Brown argues that Luther's personality was based partly upon anal fantasies and that Luther achieved some of his spiritual breakthroughs while defecating. Brown suggests numerous similarities between Lutheran Protestantism and psychoanalysis. He also provides a study of Jonathan Swift, in which he denounces attempts to conceal Swift's interest in scatology and "housebreak this tiger of English literature." He is especially critical of Aldous Huxley and John Middleton Murry for their treatment of Swift. While giving Huxley and Murry credit for calling attention to Swift's "hatred of the bowels", he deplores their reduction of the theme to Swift's personal psychopathology and failure to see that Swift was calling attention to something significant. In the last chapter, Brown advocates "dialectical consciousness" as a step toward the creation of a "Dionysian ego".
Paul 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 on Freud of lesser value than the works of Brown and Marcuse. Robinson sees Brown's exploration of the radical implications of psychoanalysis as in some ways more rigorous and systematic than that of Marcuse. He notes that Life Against Death and Eros and Civilization have often been compared, but finds Brown's book more elegantly written, 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 who provides a more substantial treatment of Freud. He also finds the subtitle of Life Against Death, "the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History", to be "pompous and misleading".
Psychoanalyst Joel Kovel also finds Life Against Death comparable to, but less successful than, Eros and Civilization. Social psychologist 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.
Psychotherapist 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.
Historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, in his introduction to the second edition of Life Against Death, calls Brown's chapter on Swift the strongest part of the book, describing it as "tough, learned, witty, and inventive." Lasch believes Brown's criticism of Huxley and Murry throws light on Brown's fundamental arguments.
Poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum criticizes Brown for affirming the anus as "a bodily and symbolic zone" while ignoring its connection to sodomy and homosexual desire. Koestenbaum, unlike Brown, believes that to privilege the anus is to "admit the desirability of male homosexual relations." Cultural historian Richard Webster finds Life Against Death to be similar to Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther (1958) in that it suggests similarities between Lutheran Protestantism and classical psychoanalysis. Webster believes that the resemblances are scarcely disputable. However, he writes that while Protestants may be comforted by the discovery that the revealed truths perceived by Luther are in harmony with Freud's hypotheses, others may regard such a "congruence of ancient faith and modern reason" with scepticism and "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." Historian Arthur Marwick dismissed Life Against Death as, "a curious ragbag of quotations". Author Jay Cantor described Brown's Life Against Death and Marcuse's Eros and Civilization as "equally profound".
Brown later expressed dissatisfaction with Life Against Death, referring to its chapter on "Language and Eros" as "quite immature." He observed that the book, "records the first revision of my historical identity, from Marx to Marx and Freud", a process which occurred because his first "historical identity", Marxism, had been "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 Love's Body (1966), 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 shift of Brown's interests toward psychoanalysis led to the writing of Love's Body, which concluded that "there is only poetry", showed, according to Brown, that pursuing the implications of Freud's ideas consistently led to the 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." Brown wrote that he now realized that he did not really know what he was saying when he called for "Dionysian consciousness" in the last chapter of Life Against Death. Brown added that it was clear to him in that work "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 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: Edgar Z. Friedenberg, reviewing Foucault's Madness and Civilization (1961) in The New York Times Book Review in August 1965, 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." In his Foucault (1985), philosopher José Guilherme Merquior compares Life Against Death to Madness and Civilization, describing them as similar calls "for the liberation of the Dionysian id."
Philosopher Todd Dufresne, who compares Life Against Death to Marcuse's Eros and Civilization and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (1960), 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 understood his 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". Life Against Death influenced singer Jim Morrison. 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 work of literary criticism Sexual Personae (1990), 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 (1951) 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 them 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 sees as irrelevant to American culture.
The Belgian journalist Raymond de Becker, noting that Brown was carrying Freud's ideas to the extreme, dismissed his theories as speculation. The Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem, in The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), credited Brown with showing how Eros, understood as essentially narcissistic, can lead to union with beings in the world. Literary critic Frederick Crews writes that Brown's work was "a disservice to the important cause of applied psychoanalysis" and that Brown had become the center of a "cult" among literary humanists that needed to be challenged. Crews wrote that, despite Trilling's praise of Life Against Death, Brown was an unreliable interpreter of psychoanalysis. Literary critic Edward W. Said writes that Life Against Death was a vanguard book at the time of its publication.
Kovel identifies Life Against Death, along with Eros and Civilization, as models for his History and Spirit (1991), noting that he encountered them at a time when his ambitions as a psychoanalyst and his political hopes were in conflict. Kovel believes that Marcuse and Brown's place in history is uncertain, but nevertheless writes 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. Historian Russell Jacoby calls Life Against Death one of the boldest efforts to revitalize psychoanalysis, but believes that the work failed to "disturb its theoretical sleep." Political scientist Jeffrey B. Abramson credits Brown with providing the only account of preambivalence that highlights "the Freudian concept of identification and its significance as a desire to be at one with another person." However, he criticizes Brown for "seeking to achieve a final state of satisfaction that would end the self to be satisfied", a conclusion that he considers "nihilistic" and close to the views of Baruch Spinoza. Abramson attempts to follow Brown's reading of Freud, while avoiding Brown's eschatological approach. He groups Brown's work with Marcuse's Eros and Civilization, Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, Paul Ricœur's Freud and Philosophy (1965), and Jürgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), arguing that they jointly placed Freud at the center of moral and philosophical inquiry. Ricœur cites Brown on the meaning of desire in Freud and Philosophy.
- Brown 1985. p. iv.
- Dufresne 2000. p. 111-112.
- Dufresne 2000. p. 103.
- Dufresne 2000. p. 112.
- Brown 2005. p. 34.
- Brown 1985. p. xvii.
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- Brown 1991. pp. 158, 170, 171, 179.
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- 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.
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- Paglia, Camille (1993). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017209-2.
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- 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.