Life Against Death

Front CoverMy first exposure to the ideas of Norman O. Brown’s was his book Love’s Body which I read back in late 90’s. This classic book remains on my top shelf of insightful and provocative reads. It’s trippy – condensing the entire history of humankind into a Freudian-based mythology in which he sees that the “only contrary to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy, but Fraternity, or an alliance between Mother Earth and the band of brothers led by Cronus to castrate Father Sky.

Through many of the great writings of Western culture Brown cruises through our collective history re-telling the tragedy of war and aggression that carries through to this day. Rooted in the conflict between what Freud called instinctual bodily desires or “undifferentiated primal unity with oneself and nature” vs. the constraints of the super ego in which we become differentiated and alienated from that self and nature, Brown, in sparingly poetic phrasing, shows us the generations of humanity caught in a cycle of youthful rebellion repetitively seeking to replace the corrupt authority of Kings and Popes, our senix-driven fathers. But Brown makes clear that the tragedy of war and aggression between brothers, tribes, states and nations, also reflects an inner conflict within each of us.

Currently, I am enjoying his earlier book, Life Against Death, the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. In a much more traditional writing style, Brown walks us through Freud’s early ideas and later revisions with an emphasis on his idea of the death-instinct, it’s relationship to the pleasure principle, and its splitting from consciousness. Where there has been a technological drive towards increasing comfort and pleasure, there is also a tendency towards “inactivity, rest or sleep, death’s brother.” In other words, increasing unconsciousness and a “hostility towards life.”

From the preface:

“To experience Freud is to partake a second time of the forbidden fruit; and this book cannot without sinning communicate that experience to the reader. But to what end? When our eyes are opened, and the fig leaf no longer conceals our nakedness, our present situation is experienced in its full concrete actuality as a tragic crisis. To anticipate the direction of this book, it begins to be apparent that mankind, in all its restless striving and progress, has no idea of what it really wants. Freud was right: our real desires are unconscious.

It also begins to be apparent that mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself. Freud was right in positing a death instinct, and the development of weapons of destruction makes our present dilemma plain: we either come to terms with our unconscious instincts and drives—with life and with death— or else we surely die.”

In reading Life Against Death, I am struck by Brown’s discussion of Freud’s idea of the infant, the “polymorphous perverse infancy,” its experience of no-time, or eternal time through which an adaptation to the family and culture results in a repression of our experience of eternality in favor of an agreed upon cultural sense of linear, historical time. The idea of trading off awareness of eternal time for historical time seems an insightful way of understanding our modern dilemma. Especially with a compounded insistency that the linear perspective is the only one, an objective literal truth to which we are bound and against which all else is measured.

Perhaps as technology and access to knowledge increases, many of us are becoming aware of how much the historical perspective tugs at our hearts, leaving us apocalyptic, despairing, guilty, or passionately political towards endings, whether it be all the wars and bloodshed, hunger, disease, religion or government. There is upon us the unhappy realization that the wheel of human history is indestructible, still out of reach, frustrating further our desire for restful sleep. Our response, once we have exhausted ourselves in a playpen of technology is perhaps madness, euphoria, apathy or naiveté.

Brown complains about the postmortem loss of Freud’s ideas which interestingly happen because of the very problems of the nature of consciousness that Freud described; the fraternity of Freudian’s have killed him, moving away from the discomfort of his ideas.

Life Against Death (Wesleyan University Press edition).jpg“It is easy to take one’s stand on the traditional notions of morality and rationality and then amputate Freud till he is reconciled with common sense— except that there is nothing of Freud left. Freud is paradox, or nothing. The hard thing is to follow Freud into that dark underworld which he explored, and stay there; and also to have the courage to let go of his hand when it becomes apparent that his pioneering map needs to be redrawn.”

Brown’s observations of the fate of Freud and other visionaries rings true, from Jesus, to Jung, but if Freud is correct that we are cyclically murdering the unbearable paternal authorities only to replace them with new unbearable authorities, then murder itself is a result of incorporating an aversion to authority. Then the question becomes, how do we break this cycle of insanity?

I agree with Brown, and will leave it to the experts to draw both their paychecks and their conclusions from the dayworld perspective because as Gil Scott Heron reminds us, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Any change in consciousness big enough to affect the broad spectrum of culture is an underworld experience which happens in the hearts of individuals. In regaining our natural instincts with an embrace of life that, rather than fighting death with death, might then honor the mystery that we can all live in rather than against.

“We, however, are concerned with reshaping psychoanalysis into a wider general theory of human nature, culture, and history, to be appropriated by the consciousness of mankind as a whole as a new stage in the historical process of man’s coming to know himself.”

All quotes from Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History . Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.

22 thoughts on “Life Against Death

    • Thanks M. I’m still back east and am playing catch up too! My work VPN connection is out so I have a bit of time to say hi.
      Thanks for the note and it’s always great to read your shares too. I hope life is treating you well.
      xxx Deb

      Like

    • I think maybe Alan Watts quoted him, not sure, it could have been Hillman, or both.

      He makes some great points about the psychological corruption that comes with systems of money because money doesn’t really mean anything except for a representation of power.

      The more a society produces, the more disconnected people become from each other and the more fear there is of death which causes people to live their entire lives in a fight against death.

      Like

  1. Not sure I am well-equipped to dive into this post Debra, but this:

    Our response, once we have exhausted ourselves in a playpen of technology is perhaps madness, euphoria, apathy or naiveté.

    certainly speaks to me loud and clear!

    Even when your posts are a little over my dreamy head I still find ALWAYS find something in there to latch onto.

    xoxo
    Amanda

    Like

  2. This is an angle I never knew of in regards to Freud – such avenues! I really love being a fly on the wall to your discussion with MIchael. In regards to the Mayan concept, not through Arguelles, but first seen by me through Ian Lundgold – one of my first entrees into woo woo – I was spell bound by the evolutionary nature of time as seen through the progressions and Mayan concept of time, represented through the steps of a pyramid of the whole earth and her relationship with time. Progress seemed to be a preordained process from base biology to cosmological understanding in perhaps repeating cycles over millions of years – which we are now living through the tip top of the pyramid and reset button. OH MY! 🙂 Mind bending. Sorry to be so tangential, but the overlap makes sense in my mind – is it only in my mind? Also, I wanted to say that I dismissed Freud early on, from my limited knowledge, in favor of Jung who seemed so much keener and beautifully storied than that Oedipal/sexual overlaying weight of Freud. But last year, when my youngest daughter was having a crisis, the psychiatrist diagnosed the most challenging aspect a classic case of transference. Her ability to recover came not long after his naming of this dynamic – which I had resisted due to my bias against Freud. The idea of Neurosis in speech sends bells ringing in me as well – . I so enjoy the way my brain perks up on my visits to your explorations, Debra. Pushups for my flabby cortex. 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Marga,
      I am always happy when you share here.
      I am not as familiar with the Mayan cosmology, but the Hindu’s have something similar, yes? Kaliyuga cycles I believe? I think we’re at the end of one of their’s too, but I am not sure…

      Yes, I agree with you about Freud. I think though that he did understand something about archetypes, but just limited himself a bit.
      And yes, transference, I certainly think, is an experience that can happen between people. I certainly experienced it with my Jungian therapist. Very powerful stuff. I am happy to hear that your daughter had a good therapy experience too 🙂

      I really enjoy conversation with anyone who will put up with me 🙂
      But, I do enjoy Michael’s recapping of my posts and his great perspective on life. I sense that we are both able to find common language to express ideas that are so difficult to verbalize, well for me anyway 🙂 He’s very much the poet, artful in use of language.
      xxx
      Debra

      Like

  3. Debra, once again your post is filled with myriad inroads one can follow to explore the delightful world of ideas, and the question of “what is”. My first reaction is probably more of an aside than being on point, and it is about interpreting history. I am intrigued by, but skeptical about, attempts to interpret history through the lens of a particular struggle- whether of economic classes, or of the child against the father, etc. I am intrigued because it is fascinating to find the relevancy of these dynamics at work in the collective, (and I really do enjoy this type of scholarship), but skeptical for two reasons: one is that in a given author’s ability to overlay their interpretation upon historical events, it is quite common on the viewer’s part to infer from the dovetailing of explanation and event that the interpretation is quite accurate about the “causes” and trajectory of history, and I’m not sure that is necessarily the case; and second, because I think acceptance of the first tends to lead us as a society to chase red herrings, or at least to make attempts to solve the problem based on inherently incomplete theories.

    What I 100% agree with is that most of the tragedy of history is the product of individuals and indeed vast groups of individuals acting out of conscious discontent, for reasons perhaps most often unconscious. It sounds like Brown was saying something along these lines, because you write: “Brown makes clear that the tragedy of war and aggression between brothers, tribes, states and nations, also reflects an inner conflict within each of us.” This type of writing is also intriguing because it raises so many questions about the role of the individual in the collective, which you address with this statement: “Any change in consciousness big enough to affect the broad spectrum of culture is an underworld experience which happens in the hearts of individuals.” I tend to agree.

    As an aside on this interpretive history vein that ties in to your discussions about time, and not to say that his interpretation is more “right” than any others, I remember being fascinated by Jose Arguelles the Mayan Factor when I read it, not only for the way he reviewed modern history in light of his review of the Mayan calendar, but how he revealed an altogether different and more “living” (in my mind) view of time itself. He felt our linear view of time was toxic, and the root of much discord. Again, I struggle to find an answer to “everything” in this, but it seems related.

    You wrote: “If Freud is correct that we are cyclically murdering the unbearable paternal authorities only to replace them with new unbearable authorities, then murder itself is a result of incorporating an aversion to authority.” My sense is that any “external system” of establishing virtue and order in our world is doomed to become the subject of our anger and discontent, simply because it is outside and leaves us separate, and thus disconnected, and that we need an “inner” foundation on which to base our actions in this world. We project our inner conflict outwards onto the world, and we create outer systems to manage the results, yet neither addresses the inner/unconscious root conflict. Do you think Freud was saying something similar? And using a particular vocabulary that included father figure, etc.? Or was he really just saying it is a father figure problem? I haven’t read enough Freud to know…

    Thanks for enduring this comment…

    Michael

    Like

    • Hi Michael,

      Yes, I am skeptical of historical interpretation too and perhaps could have made it clearer that I see all interpretations as both taking on a perspective, a particular point of view, and also as languages unto themselves. History is always an interpretation, but as much as we may understand that, I think we have not broken its spell on us.

      Political figures all the way down to managers are very much entrenched in finding ways to make the endings better. We still believe we can engineer ourselves to heaven on earth. Noble, but I think missing the point, leaving out the heart, etc. (I think you and I agree here).

      Reading anyone, for me, is like learning a language. This post of mine is tricky because it is primarily looking at Brown’s perspective which is looking at Freud’s work.

      I’ve never been a big fan of Freud because as Hillman says, he has narrowed down the mythological lens to one story, King Oedipus within a family dynamic based on the erotic male perspective.

      But Brown brings Freud’s ideas to life and offers a historical fantasy (as all history essentially is) that sheds light on one way to understand the mystery.

      The problem with history is the problem of how we experience time and how time drives people to make the choices they do. In Brown’s work I am looking for one more way to understand and speak about the difference between the mundane, profane ordinary experience compared to the sacred, extraordinary experiences we have that are often expressed as being beyond or outside of time.

      “We project our inner conflict outwards onto the world, and we create outer systems to manage the results, yet neither addresses the inner/unconscious root conflict.”

      Yes, I take Freud to be saying something like that, although I have also not read a lot of Freud. Again though the ideas of Freud are Brown’s. Freud’s work was certainly his area of expertise. I think though the discussion of Freud’s and Brown’s is in much broader societal terms and less specifically about individuals.

      Freud, like Jung, left in his wake a school of therapy and study, although much of Freud’s work has been replaced by other schools of thought, primarily cognitive science and behaviorism and neuroscientific approaches.

      I like that Freud recognized we are neurotic in our speech. I agree and am always interested in ways to break the spell, in my use of language and in others.

      ” I remember being fascinated by Jose Arguelles the Mayan Factor when I read it, not only for the way he reviewed modern history in light of his review of the Mayan calendar, but how he revealed an altogether different and more “living” (in my mind) view of time itself. He felt our linear view of time was toxic, and the root of much discord. ”

      Yes, this speaks to my point that linear time itself is a fantasy, a perspective, and one among many ways to be in the mystery.

      Thank you for amplifying and bringing clarity to the ideas. I hope I am holding up my end of the conversation and have properly addressed your points! Sometimes I do get lost when trying to respond. 🙂

      Debra

      Like

      • We agree completely we won’t engineer our way to heaven on earth. Without the heart, nothing else quite matters, or works. You’ve more than held up your end. Thank you for the clarifications.

        Your sentiments on getting lost made me think about the notion of linear time, and linearity period, and how language forces us to take whole things and pass them back and forth in discrete pieces. We have to wait until we get the entire download to begin to start seeing the whole. It is so easy to get lost in the middle, or distracted, or to follow a loose thread. But this communication thing in general- it’s like trying to describe a circle with a language that knows only of lines.

        Here’s to breaking the spell of history…

        Michael

        Like

  4. I read Brown back in the Sixties.

    About two years ago I posted something on Brown on my own blog that you might find interesting.

    http://broadspeculations.com/2012/01/18/eros-thanatos-and-tantra/

    Many today seem to find Freud irrelevant and to a degree that might be true. His ideas seem somewhat antiquated today but we need to remember they were developed in an era without any of the benefits of modern neuroscience. I have been sketching out a larger work (perhaps a short book or multiple blog posts) that would attempt to reinterpret Freud in line with modern scientific understandings.

    Like

  5. “…sees that the “only contrary to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy, but Fraternity, or an alliance between Mother Earth and the band of brothers led by Cronus to castrate Father Sky.”

    I’ve always felt within myself that the male has a key role to play in the castration of Father Sky. The tragedy for me is the level of unconscious in the male when it comes to living this out.

    I think we can only reach Fraternity when Matriarchy has reached that place of full differentiation and is able in freedom to exercise its own unique role and contribution to the creation of a fraternity.

    Wonderful post again Debra.

    Like

    • Hi Don,
      Yes, it is an interesting cycle to think about.
      We certainly could use more consciousness, or attentiveness to the dynamics of participation in our short lives here.
      On good days, I feel hopeful that with all the ways we now have to experience others, whether seeing the tragedy of war and hunger through the media or having greater access to books and dialogue.
      But, it’s hard to be too optimistic when we live in an age where we know we teeter on the edge of several dreadful possibilities.
      Those of us who can (many of us here), continue to throw out seeds and tend our own gardens.

      Thank you for sharing your insights!

      I do agree that men, by their nature, have a big role to play by helping each other and especially youth to direct their strengths and power in peaceful ways.

      Debra

      Like

Your comments welcome here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s