Life Against Death – Part II

A consideration of the aim and purpose of artificial intelligence (AI), provides a fitting introduction to this followup post on Norman O. Brown’s book, Life Against Death. AI seeks to build a model of human intelligence for the purpose of:

1) The thrill and power of creating, fathering and possessing a better than human machine, a substitute for flesh and blood body.

2) Putting AI to work as servants so we save time for some other purpose.

3) To reach immortality either through an AI computer programmed to replicate itself, or to perfect our flesh and blood bodies with mechanical replacement parts allowing humans to at last say goodbye to death.

File:Robot Fish (4651519523).jpgA desire to recreate intelligence that matches or surpasses our own is perhaps the climax of a long history of our struggle against death. Does not attempting to mimic our likeness in an AI machine reflect back to us a sense of ourselves as discardable matter, preferring mechanical automatons better than we but without the messiness of life; our flesh, blood, pain and guts? Does it not also seek to be rid of the heart, the center of feeling?

Near the end of the book, Norman O. Brown quotes Henry Miller:

“The cultural era is past. The new civilization, which may take centuries or a few thousand years to usher in, will not be another civilization— it will be the open stretch of realization which all the past civilizations have pointed to. The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid.

The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates. Governments will give way to management, using the word in a broad sense . The politician will become as superannuated as the dodo bird. The machine will never be dominated, as some imagine; it will be scrapped, eventually, but not before men have understood the nature of the mystery which binds them to their creation. The worship, investigation and subjugation of the machine will give way to the lure of all that is truly occult. This problem is bound up with the larger one of power— and of possession. Man will be forced to realize that power must be kept open, fluid and free. His aim will be not to possess power but to radiate it.” Henry Miller

Brown offers us a big view of the history of consciousness through an examination of Freud’s ideas alongside those of Whitehead, Bachelard, Goethe, Blake and Boehme, Rilke and others. He delves deeply into the question of how the disconnection between mind and matter/body at the level of human consciousness has turned us against our animal nature and in so doing, pitted life against death. By sacrificing the infantile pleasure instincts for the common good, repressed instincts become sublimated; turned away from oneself in service to the group through work, art, sport and religion. But in postponing and repressing the ability to feel pleasure, the all work becomes compulsive and all pleasurable states bring guilt. We then seek to possess, to become immortal through the legacy of building and owning stuff. 

In a long chapter on anality, an important theme in both Freud and Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Brown makes the point that from primitive to modern man a split between mind and body can be associated with our discomfort of the dirt and filth of matter. Increasingly in Christianity we see the ancient split come into light:

“This paradox means that the Christian is split into two dimensions, spirit that belongs to Christ and flesh that belongs to the Devil…The whole realm of visible reality, the world and the flesh , belong to the Devil; God has retired into invisibility— Deus absconditus.”

Quoting Luther:

“It is nothing new or strange that the world should be hopeless, accursed, damned; this it had always been and would ever remain.”

The world as forever corrupt, the domain of the devil leads to an expectation of suffering, pain and misery as inevitable for the flesh, which we abandoned by retreating into spirit, a separated mental realm. This division between spirit and flesh increases our alienation to bodily pleasure and sense which in turn extends our alienation to the world of matter which we seek only for power and possession.

Although the eventual secularization of protestant beliefs in the modern world could not sustain a belief in the devil, we also fail to seek a grace or redemption of matter, still unable to break the chains of the compulsion to work and postpone pleasure to some imagined future.

“But as long as (to quote Tillich) “the Protestant principle cannot admit any identification of grace with a visible reality,” and cannot repeat with conviction the traditional Christian faith that the time will come when grace will be made visible, and that this goal is the meaning of history, it looks as if neo-orthodox theology will remain incapable of casting out demons, and therefore will be of limited service to the life instinct in its war against the death instinct. It diagnoses, but it does not cure.”

History itself can be seen as part of the problem. Through our sense of time we defer pleasure, looking to the future, saving time as we go to have more time, always necessary to those who cannot live in the present. Our inability to be present leaves us unlived, and so guilty, unredeemed, haunted, suffering from sins of both our personal and ancestral past. We do not easily live in the present, even if intellectually we know that’s all we have. We are bound by our sense of time which keeps us out of the eternal present.

Brown sees the intensification of the split and neurosis as necessary to bringing the repressed unconsciousness into consciousness. In the modern industrial era of capitalism:

“The alienated consciousness is correlative with a money economy. Its root is the compulsion to work. This compulsion to work subordinates man to things, producing at the same time confusion in the valuation of things (Verwertung) and devaluation of the human body (Entwertung).”

Capitalism may have emerged along with a more secular world, but Brown reminds us that the focus of our worship has moved from the god of church to the god of money and the power and hope in possessing things:

“The money complex is the demonic, and the demonic is God’s ape; the money complex is therefore the heir to and substitute for the religious complex, an attempt to find God in things.”

Brown concludes on a positive note by seeing that all of history has brought us to this moment in which the abolition of repression may free us from the split between mind and body into a resurrection, or a giving of life back to the body:

“The life instinct, or sexual instinct, demands activity of a kind that, in contrast to our current mode of activity, can only be called play. The life instinct also demands a union with others and with the world around us based not on anxiety and aggression but on narcissism and erotic exuberance…The death instinct is reconciled with the life instinct only in a life which is not repressed, which leaves no “unlived lines” in the human body, the death instinct then being affirmed in a body which is willing to die. And , because the body is satisfied, the death instinct no longer drives it to change itself and make history, and therefore, as Christian theology divined, its activity is in eternity.”

Finally, Brown sees in the vision of mystics, gnostics, kabbalists and alchemists, both east and west, the healing between mind and body where Freud’s polyperverse pleasure of the infant is found in the experience of the eroticsim of the entire body and the transformation of historical time into eternal time:

“But there is in the Western tradition another kind of mysticism, which can be called Dionysian or body mysticism, which stays with life, which is the body, and seeks to transform and perfect it.

In Boehme’s concept of life, the concept of play, or love-play, is as central as it is in Freud’s; and his concept of the spiritual or paradisical body of Adam before the Fall recognizes the potent demand in our unconscious both for an androgynous mode of being and for a narcissistic mode of self-expression, as well as the corruption in our current use of the oral, anal, and genital functions.

The “magical” body which the poet seeks is the “subtle” or “spiritual” or “translucent” body of occidental mysticism, and the “diamond” body of oriental mysticism , and, in psychoanalysis, the polymorphously perverse body of childhood. Thus, for example, psychoanalysis declares the fundamentally bisexual character of human nature; Boehme insists on the androgynous character of human perfection; Taoist mysticism invokes feminine passivity to counteract masculine aggressivity ; and Rilke’s poetic quest is a quest for a hermaphroditic body.”

Science too, adds to the split in its attempt to get outside of its own humanity, subdue nature and discard the pleasure and importance of the senses:

“the only historian of science who uses psychoanalysis, Gaston Bachelard, concludes that it is of the essence of the scientific spirit to be mercilessly ascetic, to eliminate human enjoyment from our relation to nature, to eliminate the human senses, and finally to eliminate the human brain.”

“To eliminate the human brain,” brings us back to the question of AI’s quest and hopefully for you who have read this far, as it does for me, explains not so much why AI is a problem but that it is not a solution.

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

11 thoughts on “Life Against Death – Part II

  1. Wow Debra. I really do not even know where to begin. There is always such richness in all of your posts that I often find myself coming back to each of them, reading them over and over again, gleaning more each time (same can be said for Monika’s posts!).

    I hope this is related enough to your original post, but I guess what I feel compelled to comment on is a specific type of divided consciousness I often experience. The more I become grounded in my body and approach the silence (turning off the thinking mind), the easier I find it to tap into energy shifts, to enjoy the ever-present sensuality of all parts of the body, to embrace the pure ecstasy that can be found by simply shifting your total attention to your hands. However, as I shift back to “thinking” consciousness, I often find I am distracted, unable to focus on linear thinking, and sort of reluctant to connect with the thinking mind at all, which, as I am sure you can guess, is often problematic!

    My question is, have we culturally/historically made such a strict divide between thinking and body-awareness that they are now at once each other’s shadows, where even our “subtle-body consciousness” now perceives the thinking mind as a threat to its very existence??


    1. Hi Amanda,

      I love your description of body consciousness! That’s great and I think I know what you mean.

      You ask a great question too. I hope the answer is no, but you make me consider the possibility that if the disconnect between mind and body is great enough there is likely pathology of mind and body. Addiction, or suicide might be good examples of that, yes? Is that the sort of thing you are seeing?



      1. Yes. I think what I am stumbling to say is that just as we have rejected myth, we have rejected body, making the dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious that much more difficult, and my longstanding personal rejection of the “wisdom of the body” has produced its own unique backlash as I now try to reconnect with body and the energetic experience. Body-awareness almost seems permanently on guard of me getting “back into my head,” as if body sees linear or ego-driven thought as a threat…”No! No more thinking! That’s what made you ignore me in the first place!!” says body. 🙂

        They have become either/or states rather than integrated ones.

        Yet I remain hopeful of the integration of mind and body, because I really believe it has the power to be transformative, just as this post has an incredible power to make people ramble 🙂

        Stanley Keleman puts it way better than I can: “The person, after changing his somatic stance, has a whole new set of associations from which he is deriving meaning. All of a sudden he is a participant in a the dream…On this basis…if you inhibit yourself from responding to emotional, bodily information, you get one kind of world view. If you let yourself respond, you get another kind, because you have altered your experience of your self in the world.”

        Foot in mouth achieved??


      2. oooh, I really love that quote Amanda!

        Perhaps being aware of it is the first step. And I agree that it is transformative. Hillman calls it getting back our animal senses.

        It may sound like a paradox, but I think language can help us and is not necessarily in opposition to the body. Human thinking and talking is our animal speak, but it can be difficult to experience it that way.


  2. I am in awe of your intellect because it seems an awfully hard book. I especially tried to understand the quote that starts with: “But there is in the Western tradition another kind of mysticism, which can be called Dionysian or body mysticism, which stays with life, which is the body, and seeks to transform and perfect it.” Then I cannot understand how he can speak of Boehme, mysticism, diamond body and subtle body together with psychoanalysis. I have always seen Freudian psychoanalysis as biased against mysticism. I am so confused, but that is ok.
    Now, on AI, I must say I find this topic fascinating. I personally do not connect it with immortality but definitely with mentalism or disassociation from the body. It is very Aquarian, fitting for the age of Aquarius. I have recently seen a great movie called “Robot and Frank,” which I really recommend.
    I feel I am rambling, sorry about this.
    But as usual I am very inspired by your writing.


    1. Hi Monika,

      In some ways I share your confusion about psychoanalysis. Brown, in detail, distinguishes between Freud’s ideas, even how his views shifted in later years, and the school of psychoanalysis, which he claims has taken Freud in the wrong direction. How much Brown himself is taking liberties with Freud’s ideas I cannot say. I have read very little of Freud’s writings myself!

      This was one of the most difficult books I have read in awhile and halfway through I was tempted to either skip through a chapter, or abandon the book altogether. Instead, I put it down for awhile. I’m glad I stayed with it though. The last 40 pages or so were really inspiring.

      I guess I see a bit of an attempt at immortality, or at least legacy in AI in the same way people do other things like paint or write. There is that attempt to record things either to have them out there as an object, or infiltrate the culture with ideas, disseminating them like a virus.

      The robotic fish made me wonder if there might be someday, if not already, an attempt to replace organisms with machines, for example, to clean up the oceans.

      I’ll have to check out the film, thanks!

      Oh, I am thrilled at your “ramblings.” I so much enjoy hearing your insights into my ramblings!



  3. I agree completely AI is not a solution. (There’s something intriguing about that virtual shark, however…) I remember picking up Ray Kurzweil’s book about “spiritual machines” and how, based on advances in computing, and information theory, and the age of the universe, and all of this stuff, we would all be reincarnated as virtual immortals in an “eternally viable” computer generated world experience. It was a really interesting read at the time, but not because it made much sense to me as a viable explanation or prognostication of reality… or a world in which I wanted to “live”.

    This post is really interesting and a number of points tickle my curiosity to know more of what you are describing. I’m trying to pull out the core theme and I think my unfamiliarity with some of the authors you quote, or the landscapes of vocabulary they deploy, is a challenge. I’d like to understand better the part about the life instinct and the death instinct because I think it perhaps relates to your own comment to me on my recent post. It strikes me that you are describing the consequences of a fundamental rift between mind and body, and the way the mortal world is something we have retreated from.

    This passage in particular was interesting, “The death instinct is reconciled with the life instinct only in a life which is not repressed, which leaves no “unlived lines” in the human body, the death instinct then being affirmed in a body which is willing to die. And , because the body is satisfied, the death instinct no longer drives it to change itself and make history, and therefore, as Christian theology divined, its activity is in eternity.”

    I wonder, for instance, what it means for a body to be “willing to die.”

    At the end of this crazy comment, let me just say this quote made it all worthwhile: “…the time will come when grace will be made visible, and that this goal is the meaning of history…”



    1. Hi Michael,

      This was one of the most difficult books I’ve written about because of the length and complexity of the ideas. Trying to condense so much into1,600 words was maybe not even a fair response to the material.

      “I’d like to understand better the part about the life instinct and the death instinct because I think it perhaps relates to your own comment to me on my recent post.”

      I take Brown to be saying that if we live our lives trying to avoid the fact that we are embodied souls that will someday experience death, we will then distance ourselves from bodily being in favor of a more spiritual or disembodied mental world. That in turn will cause us to lose our instincts, both for living and dying, and so keep us in pursuit of everything from pleasure to love because we are unable to fully live the human experience of as body and mind united.

      He’s not advocating a life of hedonism, but also, not a life of denial of pleasure, but again as many of the poets and mystics, including Jesus, tell us, a life in which we live fully as body and spirit, accepting that in order to live, we must accept death.

      I love that Brown ties in a historically progressive notion that humans have been aiming for a reconciliation between body and spirit.

      I hope this helps. The book takes one deeply into western history, through many voices of the past, showing how we have increased the mind/body split but only to ultimately reunite these two essential modes in which we experience our lives.



      1. Thank you, and it does help. I think I agree with the notion that the fear of death causes all sorts of maladies and dysfunctions and disconnections, that it perhaps leads us to reinforce a distance from the body which is the symbol of our mortality. We thus at once hate the body yet fight like hell to preserve it. We prolong it to unreasonable extents, in ways that prolong suffering, but distance death.

        This is a really interesting thread. I think I tend to reflect on this on another scale, if you’ll permit me, and to think that when we posit Creation (the material world) to be distinct and disconnected from the Divine (a heavenly reality), we have this same kind of split, maybe? Now the world is a cause of guilt, something to get away from. I think I understand it better on this type of scale.

        Also, I’ve come to think of the mind and body as being a package deal, when we think of the mind as being the thinking being that really believes it is the local body-personality. That mind and body may be split, but I see that type of mind-body as a package deal. Split perhaps, an odd couple, but not truly separable. And then what about the mind-spirit that is what you might refer to in other posts or notes as expansive? In the reuniting this book describes, is he suggesting that this timeless element of who we are is able to fully express through the body, once the fear of death is set aside?

        I wonder what he offers about setting aside the fear of death? I mean, this isn’t like choosing a paint color. For me personally, that always gets back to identity, which is deeply engrained and emotionally charged territory. If I believe this body is who I ultimately am, how will I transcend death?

        Sorry to ramble…



      2. Hi Michael,

        I love your rephrasing here:

        “when we posit Creation (the material world) to be distinct and disconnected from the Divine (a heavenly reality), we have this same kind of split, maybe? Now the world is a cause of guilt, something to get away from.”

        Yes, the world itself is a “body of death” perhaps because we don’t always see or experience renewal and transformation, which Brown sees as a both cause and effect of our linear historical experience of time. Time is a psychological perspective that binds us to the past, forever anticipating the future. When we are psychologically immersed in historical time our experience of the present consists of looking back or forward; guilt then leads to hope.

        “If I believe this body is who I ultimately am, how will I transcend death?”

        Perhaps we don’t transcend death, but give ourselves over to the fact of it by not splitting life into the two opposing actions of living and dying. Living IS dying, Dying is living.

        Brown suggests that getting back our animal (bodily) senses is essential. That idea, for me, needs more understanding, even though I sense the truth of it, it needs more amplification to mean anything.



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